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Degrees of failure

Universities have grown vast and vastly expensive. Time to stop and ask if they do any good

Alison Wolf is a professor of public sector management at King’s College, London

Among the world’s major institutions, only the Catholic Church has operated, uninterrupted, for longer than the universities. They are the source of how we think and what we know, and have formed western elites for centuries. They still do, but in the last halfcentury they have been transformed—in size, but also in their social impact and political importance. In England most universities have been enjoying a glorious 21st century. But the sector now looks politically isolated and unstable, with Brexit simply adding to a set of deep-rooted problems.

Early medieval Oxford, England’s oldest university, had a few hundred students: rising to 4,500 on the eve of the Second World War. Today it has 25,000, and that makes it one of our smaller elite research institutions. University College London now has 38,000 students, twice as many as a decade ago. Manchester pips this at 39,000; Edinburgh and Sheffield are close behind. Other European countries are the same: the original University of Paris, centred in the Sorbonne since the 13th century, is now just “Paris IV”: one of thirteen large campuses spread across the city… Bologna, the oldest university of all, enrols 82,000. Over the last half-century, the growth of universities has been, quite simply, staggering. This isn’t just a first-world phenomenon. Emerging economies are stacking up far more students at a given national income than developed economies ever did.

This means, of course, student votes can shift elections—witness Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise success in June in seats such as Canterbury (home of the University of Kent). It also has turned the UK’s university sector into a country-wide economic giant. Only the tech sector outpaces higher education’s growth rate around the world, and it employs far fewer people. You don’t, furthermore, get many tech start-ups in Lancaster or Huddersfield, but in both towns, the university is a dominant physical presence. Their combined annual turnover in the UK is now £33bn—on a par with legal services, and half as much again as pharmaceuticals. Universities bring £11bn a year directly into the UK economy in international payments, largely fees; and international students spend another £5bn on rent, food and leisure, making higher education one of our few reliable, huge and thriving export industries.

House-building may be lagging, but campus-building is not. In deprived Wolverhampton, the university has a £250m investment plan with a brand new Business School and science centre; at Nottingham Trent, in a city with yet higher deprivation, it’s a new plaza, new teaching block, and a new Pavilion Building. In London, mighty UCL is projecting capital spending of £1.25bn over a decade, and King’s, my own university, has just occupied a large chunk of the Aldwych.

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In Prospect’s August issue: Adam Tooze, Helen Thompson, Ben Chu, Julian Baggini, Tom Clark and Hepzibah Anderson reveal the secret history of the banking crisis and its impact over the last decade. Tooze examines the secret history itself, suggesting the work done to repair the world’s finances could mean another crisis is just around the corner. Chu asks why more people at the top of the banks that failed haven’t faced more serious repercussions, and Anderson shows how post-crash Britain has retreated into cosiness. Elsewhere in the issue Alison Wolf asks whether universities are doing any good, and David Goldblatt explores how the decision to take football off free-to-view television in Argentina could backfire for the government. Also in this issue: Kasia Boddy asks why writers are still addicted to watching boxing despite falling viewing figures, Andrew Dickson profiles Tom Stoppard, Stephen Bush explains how Jeremy Corbyn learned to compromise and David Omand outlines the cyber-security challenges facing the UK and the wider world.