After an extended shutdown, cancellation of exams and chaos over student admissions, universities are watching carefully as children return to school, all the while making final preparations for our own start of term, after months of detailed planning. Are we about to see a freeze of our global ambitions?
“Covid has shown up an underlying structural problem”
One of the biggest Covid-induced symptoms still facing UK universities is the predicted low numbers of international students likely to begin courses this autumn.
The forecasts vary, but the best guess is that many institutions, my own included, could see only around half the numbers normally expected from outside the UK beginning a course this year.
The financial impact of this will be severe. At Reading, we have prepared ourselves for a large fall in income over three years. This will be hard for us and reminds us that even educational institutions are not immune to global shocks. We are currently consulting with unions over a possible one-year pay cut to reduce the need for job losses.
Universities have asked for UK government support, with limited success. But even if the taxpayer does foot the bill for financial assistance or loans for some, this will still only be symptomatic relief for the loss of income from international students.
As is true in many areas of society, Covid has shown up an underlying structural problem: the attractiveness of British universities to a rich, fee-paying global elite is subsidising Britain’s higher education and research base.
This system exists, whatever your views of its merits. Yet the requirement for universities to become successful global exporters of degrees to America, Asia and Africa masks a far more important role that universities play for Britain, and for global society.
This is a job universities have undertaken, with great success, for centuries. While the specific aims of the past may not sit comfortably with those we hold today, their ability to act as forces for change remains undimmed.
In the UK we have in many ways lost sight of the power of education. Yes, many educational inequalities persist. But in parts of the world where schooling is not free, and poverty can mean a life without access to adequate healthcare and poor living conditions, education is literally the difference between life and death.
The hunger for education in places like southern India, where I have worked, is enormous; and the potential to unleash talents that would otherwise be constrained is proven time after time. And this is not just in the sciences and the professions.
As an academic and filmmaker visiting Indian universities, I have seen the billion-dollar Bollywood results of investing in creative, artistic and technical subjects.
This is the real challenge facing truly global universities. For British institutions, in particular, the challenge must be met with mindful consideration of our colonial history, and avoidance of a whole toxic tankful of –isms. But I have seen how by working with local partners, British universities can collaborate to change thousands of lives for good.
Into all of this today comes a new set of global university league tables. The influential Times Higher Education World University Rankings shows the continuing strength of UK universities, even if on a set of measures conceived to suit and make money from, the US and European system.
Asian universities will continue to grow in wealth and status, but there is still some way to go before they muscle into the bulk of the established cabal.
UK universities already benefit from a strong international outlook. We have benefited from relatively open borders in recent decades to recruit academics and students from overseas.
“At Reading we have prepared ourselves for a large fall in income over three years”
In a future outside the European Union, we can use our global position to bring more of the benefits of strong global links home to the whole of the UK, and not just the cash. And we need to export our wealth of knowledge and experience of collaboration, most of all to the parts of the world that can least afford to pay for them.
Transnational education, working with others to deliver courses in the countries where students are, serves more towards this purpose than flying students into Britain or flying lecturers out.
We’re at a crossroads of Britain’s role in the world. Universities may be facing a short-term financial problem, but long-term, it is our values, less than our balance sheets, which have most to gain from remaining as global institutions.
Paul Inman was appointed pro-vice-chancellor (International) at the University of Reading in August 2020. In his role, he leads the university’s global engagement, international profile and reputation. He is also responsible for developing and implementing a strategic approach to the recruitment of international students and the expansion of global connections.