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The University Challenge: Changing Universities in a Changing World, by Ed Byrne and Charles Clarke

Book of the week: Nick Hillman sifts through the arguments in a bold attempt to determine the future of higher education

Both politicians and vice-chancellors have been known to churn out books, including tomes on the future of higher education. But it is not often that a very senior vice-chancellor (of two different institutions on opposite sides of the world) and a very senior politician (who has been home secretary as well as secretary of state for education and skills) come together to write a book.

The end result marries the accessible messaging of politics with the deep expertise of an experienced university leader. It is challenging, taking a grand sweep across teaching, research, civic engagement, funding, accountability and the value of higher education. Topical issues such as free speech, climate change and the reliance on overseas students are covered too.

Mixing a politician and a vice-chancellor could have gone wrong, if – for example – the academic had brought an ivory-tower mentality and the politician had brought bombast. Thankfully, this book takes the opposite approach. Both the boring edges of insular university politics and the more partisan elements of national politics have been shaved off (except perhaps in the disappointing sections on student fees and vice-chancellors’ pay, which try to settle too many scores). What’s left is a coherent and thought-provoking take on today’s systems of higher education around the globe, particularly in the Anglosphere.

One of the most important elements is the inclusion of dramatic social changes that we do not talk enough about, such as the impact of rising life expectancy on demand for education. The book is similarly strong on the way the labour market has changed and the way research now happens on a truly interconnected global scale, traversing national and disciplinary boundaries.

I wasn’t convinced by every part of the picture of fast and significant change. The authors set great store by the development of teaching-only private higher education institutions, but they say little about past problems in this space. These matter because authorities in the US and UK have clamped down on new providers. Everyone I’ve ever met who has tried to get a significant new higher education institution off the ground in recent times has found it very much harder than they initially anticipated. So it’s not clear how what Charles Clarke and Ed Byrne have in mind would work out in practice.

There are some nice surprises, particularly around the definition of what a university is. For years, the heads of the UK’s most research-intensive institutions have tried to limit competition for the really big resources, like the huge slugs of research cash, to the 20 or 24 such institutions (often neatly coinciding with the number of members of the Russell Group at any given point). They’ve also traditionally tried to limit competition by pushing the idea that the word “university” should really only be applied to institutions that do decent amounts of research.

This has been a woefully unsuccessful strategy because less research-intensive institutions with the title of university have responded by agreeing that they should indeed do significant amounts of research and then bidding for a fair share of the available cash.

Fortunately, Byrne and Clarke puncture the bubble. They say there’s nothing wrong with being a teaching-only university. While they want more research cash funnelled towards the big research-intensive institutions, and particularly favour these, they suggest that it should reach 40 to 60 universities in the UK rather than a smaller number. In a section that might concern some of their senior colleagues, such as finance directors, but find favour with enlightened student representatives, they also call for more transparency in spending on teaching and research.

Moreover, they recognise that some money has to be used to ensure a good regional distribution of high-class research as well as to recognise pre-existing excellence. That dual approach could work for the university sector as long as research and development spending continues growing (as Boris Johnson’s government has promised) and a larger proportion of it continues to go to universities than in other countries (which is more in doubt). If the UK stays on course to spend at least 2.4 (and eventually 3) per cent of GDP on R&D, then we can make progress on funding excellence and building regional capacity. If we don’t, something will have to give.

One other surprise in the book is the downplaying of institutional autonomy. There are warm words for many elements of autonomy and criticisms of how foreign autocracies treat their universities, as well as a few sharp words for England’s Office for Students. But there is also a clear sense that autonomy has gone too far, as in the call for “both top-down and bottom-up” approaches towards governing the sector. The question of whether full autonomy of individual institutions provides too little room for shaping the whole system is an interesting and thought-provoking one that our predecessors would have recognised. We have to hope the plea for more oversight is taken at face value by policymakers, as a route to strengthen the sector further, rather than an excuse to trample on institutions whose members have sometimes challenged those in power.

I found the book least persuasive in its stargazing. It’s useful to know how the authors think higher education is likely to develop. But there is a certainty about their predictions that may prove misplaced. Academic enquiry is generally associated with uncertainty but, here, many potential future developments are regarded as “inevitable”. The authors even continue to herald the opportunities offered by massive open online courses when others have lost their initial enthusiasm. Their comment about how we will each soon have “our own computational infrastructure connected to internet-facilitated mega computing facilities in the cloud” sounds a bit too much like the way aged politicians talk about technology in The Thick of It to me (Silicon Playground anyone?), but perhaps they’ll be proved right.

They are also convinced that part-time study is on its way back. It could be, and I hope it is. But all their reasons why this will happen (like the need for people to get more continuous professional development) have been true throughout the recent period of sharp decline in part-time study in England and it hasn’t happened yet. So we may need new policy levers to ensure it does.

Sometimes, when politicians and even vice-chancellors speak, you know you’re being spun a line. When that happens, I tend to think, “If you’re not thinking much about what you’re saying, I’m not going to listen very much.” Despite being written by one politician and one vice-chancellor, this book takes a different approach. The ideas are properly thoughtful and definitely worth engaging with. Above all, the authors’ broad approach proves the truth behind my favourite sentence in the whole book: “A university is not simply an institution, it is a living, breathing, thinking community.”

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Unit.


The University Challenge: Changing Universities in a Changing World

By Ed Byrne and Charles Clarke

Pearson Education, 288pp, £19.99

ISBN 9781292276519

Published 14 January 2020


The author

Ed Byrne, president and principal of King’s College London (and chairman of King’s Health Partners), ­studied medicine at the University of Tasmania and went on to train as a neurologist in both Adelaide and London. A dual national, he has worked as a researcher and clinician in both Australia and the UK. He later moved into senior management roles, as executive dean of medicine, nursing and health science at Monash University and then as executive dean of the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences, head of the medical school and vice-provost at UCL.

From there, Byrne returned to Australia to become president and vice-chancellor at Monash from 2009 to 2014, where his tenure was notable for forging a major alliance with the University of Warwick and establishing a new campus in Suzhou, China. He moved back to London for his current position in 2014.


Charles Clarke was born in London, studied mathematics and economics at King’s College, Cambridge and served as president of the National Union of Students from 1975 to 1977. After serving as a local councillor, he worked as a researcher and then chief of staff to the Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. After the party was defeated in the 1992 general election, he shifted into management consultancy before being elected to Parliament in Tony Blair’s landmark 1997 victory.

MP for Norwich South until 2010, Clarke soon rose through the ranks and became a junior education minister in 1998 before taking on a similar role at the Home Office. He was later promoted to chairman of the Labour Party (2001-02), secretary of state for education and skills (2002-04) and finally home secretary (2004-06). Since leaving front-line politics, he has held visiting professorships at the University of East Anglia, Lancaster University and King’s College London.

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