According to latest league tables, English universities have slipped down the world rankings. Over the last year, the UK has gone from having 12 universities in the top 100 to just 10. Meanwhile, Oxford and Cambridge remain the only British universities in the top 10 in the world.
Some commentators were quick to claim that this was the result of student protests and funding cuts damaging the reputation of English higher education. While images of students battling with police can't have helped, a far more likely explanation is the meteoric rise of world-class universities in Asia. The problem is not that English universities are getting worse - it's that other countries are getting better.
The past few decades have seen an astonishing expansion of higher education in Asian countries. A generation ago, only 10 per cent of young adults in Korea completed tertiary education, but today that figure is nearly 40 per cent. In China and India, a mixture of population growth and economic development are also causing a large expansion of universities. At the same time, these countries are making a concerted effort to boost international competitiveness by targeting funds towards a handful of universities. This is clearly reflected in the latest league table, which saw institutions from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore all climb up the rankings.
But the rise of universities in Asia needn't be seen as a threat for British higher education. Universities in England can benefit from this growing market. Indeed many are already doing it - by opening campuses in other countries, franchising their degrees to foreign institutions, offering distance learning overseas, and benefiting from an inflow of talented foreign students and researchers. It is now possible for students living in Malaysia to attend a local university of Nottingham campus, and for Chinese students in Xi'an Jiaotong to enrol at the University of Liverpool. In fact, more international students are now working towards UK degrees overseas than at home. Higher education is an important export market for the UK and will continue to be so.
The publication of global league tables will fuel calls for England to produce more ‘world class universities' that can compete against the likes of Harvard (or for that matter Tsinghua, Tokyo and Hong Kong). This in turn will lead to calls for research funding to be concentrated towards those institutions that are able to attract the world's best researchers, students and funding.
While the desire to compete on the world stage is a valid concern - it is only a small part of what higher education is about. We must not lose sight of other aims for the sector. Universities can do a lot to improve the economic competitiveness of the UK simply by training and educating the workforce. In fact, some scholars argue that this is more important than any direct economic contribution that universities will make in the form of commercial research. Higher education institutions can also play an important role serving their local communities - acting as an avenue for local people to progress in life. In this light, creating a truly world class higher education system will involve more than topping international league tables.
IPPR has recently announced a major Commission on the Future of Higher Education in England.