Sir Richard Lambert puts higher education on the spot

Universities in the UK are world leaders, and as the UK repositions itself globally they should be a big asset. Yet policy and overseas competition threaten their preminence, said Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum, last night.

Sir Richard was delivering the vice chancellor's annual lecture at the University of Bradford. He told the audience higher education is not doing a good job defending itself from attack.

"Investing in an education is not like buying a washer. You can't measure it immediately. I don't think Universities should operate in the market place like Tesco. We use knowledge to improve society."

Ministers, said Sir Richard, speak of overseas' students in a way they would not if Universities were operating in a proper open market. He cautioned, too, that the social and political cost of allowing a University to fail is significant. Nor did he think overseas students should be counted among immigration numbers.

The role of University leaders has changed too. "It used to be said you could tell when the vice chancellor of the University of Oxford changed, because one person carried a typewriter downstairs." That the altered role of a vice-chancellor could be a defence against criticism of high salaries among University bosses seemed to be his message.

Despite reports to the contrary, the proportion of students from the poorest backgrounds has risen this past decade, according to Sir Richard. Yet those graduates end up with the highest debt, in part because maintenance grants have been cut. Debt held by the poorest, he said, is hard to justify.

"The idea that education is a public good is getting lost."
Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum, 4th October, 2017.

Provocatively Sir Richard defended University graduates from the idea that they are somehow responsible for the lack of increase in national producitivty. What of the output from further education, he asked?

In Q&A afterwards audience members pushed Sir Richard for views on increasing diversity at the top of higher education, and asked him what proportion of students he thought should go to University.

Sir Richard is a former editor of The Financial Times, former director general of the Confederation of British Industry and a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. He stepped down as the Chancellor of the University of Warwick in 2016.

Helen Gavaghan, 5th October, 2017.

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