United Kingdom universities are vast organisations. Many are the biggest employers in their areas and a small number have incomes that surpass £1 billion (US$1.3 billion) a year.
If they are able to, they will grow much bigger still. Demographic trends are about to deliver a big increase in the number of school leavers. Only around half of all younger people currently go to university, but a staggering 97% of mothers of young children want their offspring to get there.
Meanwhile, politicians of all parties say they want more spending on research and development as a way of delivering future economic growth. And, as a higher proportion of research spending goes to universities in the UK than in most other countries, this would directly boost the higher education sector and universities’ bottom lines.
Given this positive story, why has the credit rating agency Moody’s just downgraded its perceptions of some UK universities, including Oxbridge, Leeds, Keele and De Montfort?
Economic and political upheaval
The answer is that universities are not unconnected islands; they are rooted in wider society. When there is economic or political upheaval, they are often among the first to feel the chill winds.
The downgrading by Moody’s reflects the tougher environment in which UK universities are now operating and all the signs suggest things could get worse before they get better. The challenges are international, national and regional.
Internationally, there is huge competition. Only this week, Clarivate Analytics showed China has snatched the UK’s number two spot behind the United States for the concentration of highly cited researchers.
China’s rise is not just in research; it is in teaching too. In the West, we regard China as a source of international students for our universities. We typically forget that 1,000 Chinese universities are now attracting hundreds of thousands of international students of their own.
At a national level, the current UK general election campaign is adding extra uncertainty. Resolving the UK’s future relationship with the European Union could be helpful, but a bad Brexit would mean less research funding and less staff and student mobility.
The election manifestos are now confirming that more than one party wants to end England’s high tuition fees, which would mean less money for teaching as well as likely new restrictions on student places. Meanwhile, the culture wars that have unsettled universities in various countries, including the US and Hungary, are getting closer to British shores.
Read more : Nick Hillman : University World News : 23 November 2019