British universities have serious problems. The recent strikes protesting against a sudden reduction in pension rights were unusually effective, and a symptom of wider discontent. Yet international comparisons invariably show our universities to be among the best in the world, and incomparably the best in the European Union. This apparent paradox is easily resolved: universities in other countries have problems too, and often worse.
Our problems are serious nevertheless. On the material side, they include financial instability due to sometimes reckless expansion; the casualisation of the academic ‘profession’, especially at its junior level, with short-term contracts, subsistence pay and no career structure; a stupendous increase in the size, cost and power of university bureaucracy; sometimes shortsighted and self-indulgent senior management; and a growing flood of regulation.
In my own university, many senior academic meetings now need a lawyer in permanent attendance, and endless teaching and research time is wasted in floundering through the morass. The funding system is politically unstable and capricious: student fees are simultaneously inadequate for the universities and burdensome for the students. Consequently, much ‘research funding’ goes on general expenses, so that instead of money being sought to pay for important research, projects are often developed and tailored in order to raise maximum funding.
Worst of all is the insidious but ever-present undermining of free speech and free enquiry, and the creeping conversion of universities from autonomous communities pursuing knowledge to business corporations obsessed with image, market share and cash flow.
Some of this may sound familiar: yes, one might almost be talking about the NHS, or indeed about any demoralised public-sector agency, for which governments do not want to take direct responsibility but cannot bring themselves to leave alone.
And yet in international terms — the paradox with which I began — British universities are outstanding. International league tables, whose rankings are taken very seriously, consistently judge leading British universities as among the world’s best. A little of this may be due to existing reputation: we benefit from past glories. Some is due to the inestimable benefit conferred by English being the world language, which makes our universities naturally ‘international’ (a prized criterion for league-table assessors), and makes it rather easier for us to publish research in research journals and academic presses (which are mostly in English). Even given these advantages, our record in research and teaching is unsurpassed, and bought with sweat and toil.
Moreover, other countries have their own problems. American universities have acute cultural struggles over race, gender, and ‘safe spaces’, and moreover the publicly funded majority have severe financial problems. In France, governments have turned the system upside down in an attempt to improve their woeful international ratings: universities have been lumped together, sometimes scattered over hundreds of square miles, in the hope that these monsters will shoulder their way up the rankings. Yet basic problems of organisation, overcrowding and chronic underfunding remain.
I was not long ago part of a team inspecting France’s most prestigious grande école, and learned that its outdated laboratories are regularly closed on safety grounds. German universities are stifled by the patronage of incumbent professors. Italian universities suffer these problems too, aggravated by the characteristic woes afflicting all Italian public institutions. The consequences are embarrassingly plain: in the QS World University Rankings, only one eurozone university (French) is placed in the top 50; Germany’s best is 64th; Italy’s, 170th. The only continental university that approaches our best is in Switzerland.
So many of Europe’s brightest students and researchers come to Britain. The head of a renowned Cambridge research team told me he preferred French postdocs, as they were better at maths. My own college has had a recent surge of job applications from clever Italians. In total, 17 per cent of academics come from other EU countries, and far more in some universities. This is almost entirely a one-way street: legal, cultural and linguistic barriers, and protectionist recruitment practices, mean few British PhDs could have careers in Germany, Italy or France. Ironically, the countries offering equal opportunity to British academics are not in the EU, but in the Anglosphere.
Of the problems facing British universities, it was the prospect of Brexit more than any other — indeed, one might say to the exclusion of all others — that is exercising the vice-chancellors and managers of Universities UK. The vice-chancellor of Cambridge predicted the university’s status as a centre of research would be destroyed, and warned of a ‘Brexodus’ of EU academics.
In some institutions, staff were practically instructed to vote Remain; isolated Leavers kept their heads down, and still do. The great majority needed no telling. One of my scientific colleagues told me bluntly that some of his research funding and many of his research group came from the EU, and that was all that mattered to him. Universities have always been ivory towers, and to some extent they should be; but this issue has caused them to regard society with incomprehension and unconcealed disdain.
We should not be surprised. Our universities are international organisations that happen to be in Britain, drawing people and funding from abroad. Is it surprising most academics put corporate interest and professional affinity before national solidarity, and turned against what they saw as an anti-foreigner vote?
The Leave decision and our limping progress out of the EU are therefore emotionally troubling to many academics. But ‘Brexodus’, though much heralded, seems not to be happening. The Spectator (not without effort) has extracted statistics from most universities under Freedom of Information procedures. There are doubtless complexities behind the crude figures, yet the general pattern is clear: although noticeable numbers of academics from the EU left last year, a considerably greater number — 25 per cent greater — arrived. In our larger and more international universities — including Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leeds, the LSE, Queen Mary, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester — the trend is even more marked: the number arriving last year was nearly two-thirds higher than the number leaving.
The number of students from the EU has also risen. This despite negative reporting of Brexit in the Continental media, and continuing scares about EU citizens’ future status. In fact, the only nationality that is fleeing academic life is the British. So high have the financial costs of entering the profession been made for British students, so unattractive are the rewards and prospects compared with alternative careers, and so increasingly galling the burden of regulation, that only the most dedicated even contemplate research and teaching.
On top of already accumulated undergraduate debt, it costs a British student up to £35,000 in fees alone to complete a PhD, the basic qualification for an academic career, and not all of it will be covered by (highly competitive) scholarships. It costs a French doctoral student about £1,200 in fees, and a German nothing at all. Consequently, British PhD students and postdoctoral researchers are an endangered species.
The personnel problem facing British universities is not ‘Brexodus’: it’s that academic careers have been made so unattractive. Our capacity to attract the best brains depends on universities in other countries remaining even worse. Will they forever?
Robert Tombs is professor of French history at St John’s College, Cambridge. He is the author of The English and Their History.