British Universities going down the pan – an education system in terminal turmoil?


Harvard USA - number one

Harvard USA – number one

Unbeknown to most of us, the World’s Universities (about 400 of them) get ranked by Times Education/Thompson Reuters for their performance on teaching, knowledge transfer, and international outlook (using s dozen or so ‘indicators’). Effectively the table produced provides a definitive insight into their global reputations.

Shock and horror to the British though with the latest publication which shows that UK Universities are in decline – not strictly speaking freefall but definitely the writing is on the wall! Many of our well known names and best respected prestigious uni’s are also rans. By comparison our American friends are in the ascendancy, taking the top three places, eight in the top 10, and dominating the best hundred places (some 50 of them in there). UK was a very poor second.

In the past the UK had a good brand image and perhaps a credible prescience in the list, with a dozen Universities in the top hundred, but we are slipping badly and have currently lost three of them from the 100’s list. Our historic academic standard bearers Cambridge & Oxford struggle into 4th & 5th place, while many big-named Uni’s drop out. Only three others make the top 50 (Imperial, Kings, & Edinburgh), then we have the others all languishing.

Does any of this matter to us in the UK? YES. Can we take comfort in that we are a small country and do better than other countries? NO. The deterioration in our Universities’ reputations is a signal and a forewarning of bad outcomes to be faced. Other counties (say Germany) are coming up the track fast, and we may well soon be watching their rears. A top reputation brings with it top teachers, top students and above all top funding!

What is going wrong then? For a start our whole educational system is in turmoil with repetitive changing & fiddling by our governments – and it is still going on big time! Large numbers of students are taught to pass exams and not to care about their subject – teachers no longer try to inspire their charges, they simply coach them in how to get top marks. Those students going to University these days are poor academics (often choosing to study non-rigorous subjects), and only capable of being spoon fed and not to think for themselves about their subject –  which on the bottom line is the true objective of a University education. We end up with poor quality graduates. These institutions are also suffering financially, so are slipping badly in doing research- a major plank of their existence and function (which doesn’t auger well for the future does it?).

Well exactly what is the background of Universities anyway?

Education at the top level has had a commendable history with major centres of learning in many major cities across the World. Britain itself figured strongly in such centres of excellence for established tutoring (Oxford 1167 & Cambridge 1209), but historically other places established a renowned reputation as well – such as the first university Bologna, Paris (Sorbonne), Naples, Prague, Krakow, Cologne, Toulouse, amongst others

University is a word coming from the Latin, and such places in olden times specialised in communities of teachers and students – often chartered and sanctioned by rulers, princes and civic dignitaries. In modern times these are places of higher education which give their successful students ‘degrees’ of various levels. Historically though, graduates were focused on either moving onto teaching themselves or into professional positions. Expansion of Universities five hundred years or so ago, was seen especially in Germany, Italy, France, and Spain.

Universities have a particular attribute and that is encapsulated in the term ‘academic freedom’ – whence scholars are guaranteed unhindered rights in pursuit of education. In modern times Universities are expected to stoutly combine teaching & scholarship with also undertaking research.



[The founders of the first University institutions could well be aghast at how they have evolved over the past thousand years – perhaps we ought to be as well?]

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