If you're pursuing a scientific career in the UK, you must be aware of the government's plans for a radical reform of the university system. The plan is to introduce market competition between existing public universities and new kinds of private for-profit "higher education service providers" by withdrawing direct public subsidy from almost all university teaching.
Instead, teaching will be funded through greatly increased tuition fees, which students will pay back incrementally - in whole or in part - for thirty years after graduation. To anyone trained in scientific modes of analysis, evidence published for the first time today throws an interesting light on those plans.
Every year around this time, the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine publishes its annualworld university rankings. In past years, the accompanying editorial tended to emphasise the dominance of the upper reaches of these rankings by the great American private universities. This year, government plans to drive up value for money in the UK by virtually privatising the English university system necessitate a different emphasis. The rankings data have been analysed to see which universities systems offer, not the best value in absolute terms (where the US still wins hands down), but the best value for money. The results of this analysis fly in the face of government policy.
The calculations involved are hardly rocket science. The US has 75 universities listed in the top 200 worldwide. That's impressive: well over twice the UK figure of 32 universities; six times the Dutch figure (12); and ten times the Swiss (7), to mention only a few. But with a GDP of $14.6 trillion, the US economy is 6.5 times larger than the British, 19 times larger than the Dutch, and 28 times larger than the Swiss. Moreover, the US spends twice as large a share of its national wealth on higher education than these other countries do.
If we calculate what these competing university systems get for their money - by dividing the number of institutions they have in the ranking by how much the country spends on higher education - the US does surprisingly poorly. In fact, it ranks 16th of the 20 countries for which we have data. The countries with the most cost-effective university systems are Switzerland and the UK (see the graph in the THE's analysis of the results).
A similar analysis of the other highly-regarded global university ranking, the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), produces similar results. The ARWU focuses primarily on natural scientific research, ranks only the top 100 institutions worldwide, and graduates its institutional scores far more sharply than the THE rankings. For all these reasons, the US dominates it even more fully.
Yet, if we divide the total score of each country's universities on the ARWU ranking by their higher education spending, the US still fares worse than Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Australia and generates scarcely one third of the value for money produced by the two top performers globally: once again, Switzerland and the UK.
This is great news for British universities and British science. But it's terrible news for the British Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts. His entire reform programme is based on the theory that market competition between public and private universities will drive up standards and drive down prices, thus increasing value for money to students and taxpayers alike. But this evidence indicates that his theory is mistaken.
If Willetts' hypothesis were true, then the US - with its famous tier of private non-profit universities and its less-celebrated tier of private for-profit universities - would outperform all the world's more-or-less purely public university systems with ease. But instead, the US offers only a fraction of the value for money produced by public university systems in the UK and elsewhere. And it follows that the Minister's hypothesis should be rejected as false, unless he can provide some equally weighty evidence to support it.
A charitable assumption at this point might be that current UK university reform plans should be regarded instead as a "radical experiment": a bold attempt to test the neoliberal theory that markets drive up value in universities. Leaving aside the question of whether gambling the future of one of the world's great university systems on an unsubstantiated theory is prudent, two other objections come immediately to mind. Can these reforms be legitimately designated an "experiment"? And will this experiment accurately test the neoliberal hypothesis underlying it?
A typical scientific experiment painstakingly alters one variable at a time, in order to determine patterns of cause and effect. Applied to university policy, a genuinely experimental approach might, for instance, increase top-down managerialism in UCL and simultaneously decrease it in Kings College, or impose the impact agenda on Cambridge while emancipating Oxford from it, to see which institution prospered as a result. But this is not what Willetts has in mind. His plan is, in essence, to alter all the terms of the equation simultaneously: rewriting the legal definition of what a "university" is, ushering into England multiple new species of for-profit "higher education service providers", completely overturning the way in which universities have been funded for half a century, burdening future students with unprecedented levels of debt, changing the entire regulatory framework and promising to phase in further radical changes in the near future.
Does this manner of proceeding merit the honorable title of "experiment"? How are even the most astute future policy makers supposed to determine which of these innumerable, simultaneously introduced changes have proved beneficial, and which harmful? Far from proving anything, the result of this exercise will be a permanent state of polemical warfare between defenders and opponents of these radical changes.
Worse still, this is an "experiment" that cannot possibly test its own hypothesis. How are we to calculate the value generated by future public investment in higher education, when we will not know how large that investment was until the unfortunate students who begin their studies in 2012-13 finally finish paying back an unknown portion of their student loans in 2045? Far from testing the hypothesis, it will be impossible for anyone to measure the value generated by current public investment in higher education until the experiment itself is suspended and a more transparent means of publicly funding universities is reintroduced.
We should to consider the significance of this new evidence very carefully, since the future of British science, and of British careers in science, is at stake.