07 March 2003 - 09 March 2003

Higher education: the global future and value of universities in the information age

Chair: Sir John Kingman FRS

Over the weekend of 7-9 March we considered the topical question of higher education (HE) in the global information age.  Given the proximity of the conference to the publication of the UK White Paper on Higher Education there was inevitably a tendency to focus our thoughts on national issues.  Fortunately, we had around the table representatives of other traditions as well as a number of those well qualified to speak about the Information Technology revolution which helped to put our discussions into a wider framework.  We also had a chairman who made us address the underlying, rather than the peripheral, issues.  We looked at the question from the points of view of the effect of the Information Technology (IT) revolution, of those who benefited most from Higher Education and of those who paid, or should pay, for its benefits.

At the beginning of our discussions we defined Universities as places to which students went for instruction.  Having acknowledged that they are among the oldest human institutions, we went on to ask the question – if they did not exist would we now need to invent them in their present form.  Some initial answers were given.  Societies had always formed centres of knowledge dedicated not just to the creation of knowledge but to its dissemination.  In the modern world it was noted that the demands put on universities were much more diverse than in the past.  Universities now came in all shapes and sizes to respond to consumer demand.  The HE world was now characterised by intense competition both for teachers and students.  Universities needed to find their niche in this competitive world.  Interestingly, however, questions were still being raised at the end of the conference about the true purpose of universities.  We agreed on a pragmatic compromise – we are where we are, and should go forward from here.

In looking at the effect of the IT revolution we were told that universities were more, rather than less, necessary.  Although some had said that universities would be swept aside by the new IT, the reverse was the case.  Students were drowning in a torrent of undifferentiated information while remaining thirsty for knowledge.  Others saw a number of benefits.  Students had embraced IT but also wanted to remain on campus for the important but less easily quantifiable social benefits which that brought.  A “blended” model was proposed where students had a mix of residential and on-line, life.  It was also useful for life-long learning, for the so-called learner/earners who could not absent themselves from their law or other firms, and found IT a real bonus.  We noted that the average age of a freshman in the USA was now 29.   Many universities had, we thought, first introduced IT into their administrative systems for business efficiency reasons before moving on to using it as a teaching tool.  IT delivered courses needed the imprimatur of prestigious universities to give them appeal and credibility with students.

There appeared to be a consensus that attempting to divide universities between traditional and virtual was a false dichotomy.  There was such a mix of courses offered it was hard to draw a clear distinction.  And, as far as research was concerned, the virtual/traditional distinction seemed to make little sense since researchers had always wanted to communicate with the best in their fields whether members of their universities or not.  IT enabled them to do this more easily, but the idea was not new.  Those who maintained that IT had brought a qualitatively new dimension into universities pointed to a range of advances which would not have been possible without the IT revolution.  Sheer computational power made progress in some fields of scientific research possible which had previously been unthinkable in any reasonable time frame.  The ability to link researchers and to interrogate source material as well as giving access to experiments as they occurred, were also mentioned as transforming both research and certain aspects of teaching, including the humanities.  Others were less impressed. IT was an advance in the same category as books and calculators.  It had yet to prove that it was a transformational technology.  The process of learning was complex and individual.  We knew too little about how outcomes were achieved to give a definitive answer.  Those who used the language of commerce and referred to consumers and products were overlooking the fact that in education the process and the product were inseparable.  Interactive learning was also more expensive of resources than traditional methods.  Those who took a more optimistic view argued that if members of faculty took trouble over the content of e-courses and support staff were upgraded, it would leave faculty members with more time for other priorities, including research.  At another level IT could help maintain contact with alumni and with fundraising.  Conversely e-universities or courses could diminish a feeling of partnership and thus reduce the likelihood of alumni giving to their former university.  At the end of these discussions a number of policy recommendations were put forward.  At a basic level more work was needed to understand what actually happened in the educational process so that choices between IT and other forms of teaching need no longer be based on conjecture.  IT initiatives needed to be properly assessed with funds earmarked for that and with an accent on quality products – like the Open University commented a participant.  Disincentives to using the new technology should be removed.  Investment should be devoted to creating a model – the “E-university” was not thought to fit the bill – which worked from the point of view of the consumer and the pedagogue.

In considering the benefits which flow from HE, we spent some time trying to establish whether there was a causal link or simply a correlation between increasing proportions of a given population in HE and an increase in GDP.  It appeared from OECD statistics that the two best indicators of a propensity to have a growing GDP were openness to foreign trade and investment in human capital.  We noted that universities benefited the economy in indirect ways through, for example, boosting local economies and in attracting industry.  We discussed manpower planning and were not in agreement about whether it should be attempted in subjects like maths and science.  A number of us were inclined to use market signals to attract the “right” numbers.  In France, we were told that the state limited the number of physicians at universities since the state was virtually a monopoly supplier of health services and needed to limit its health budget.

Students were, by common consent, among the biggest beneficiaries of HE.  Graduates attracted a substantial wage premium.  Fears that the market for graduates would become flooded as a result of increasing numbers appeared not to be borne out.  Graduates were now entering secretarial work and nursing in response to demand for higher skill levels.  Students themselves were clear about the advantages which included not only technical knowledge but also self-confidence.  And, commented one participant, life was about more than simply the return on investment.  HE was linked with a general feeling of happiness, health, contributions to society and a greater interest in the education of their own children by graduates.  That said, there appeared to be some differentiation in earning power between the subjects studied, with the top earnings going to lawyers and finance students not scientists, and some arts graduates not earning much more than those completing secondary education.  There were calls for up to 90% of the population to have at least Tertiary, if not Higher, Education.  Not everyone needed to attend a Bachelors course at an established university.  The aim, claimed one participant, was to widen the range of courses and institutions to give as many people as possible the chance to develop their full potential.

The benefits of research at universities were discussed in some detail, again without much evidence to show that it contributed significantly to national economic growth, but with a majority of the view that it did.  It was agreed, however, that Governments would continue to play a key role in funding blue skies research.  Many also argued that good teaching was linked to good research and that teaching and research should not be separated.  In the British context this appeared to run contrary to the Government’s desire to concentrate research on a few centres to achieve the best results.  A compromise was proposed that research funds might be allocated to individuals rather than their (low-ranking) institutions, if those individuals wished to enhance their teaching by engaging in individual research projects.

We thought that there would also be benefits, both to universities in developed countries as well as more widely, through greater international cooperation.  It was already clear that Chinese and other foreign students were much sought after by British and US universities because of their financial and intellectual contributions.  However, we were told that China had decided to spend 20% a year more on its HE in order to catch up with the West.  Already some universities were being challenged to set up joint ventures by establishing campuses in China.  Unless some serious long-term thinking was done about the implications of China and other countries in the Far East entering the global market for HE, both from the point of view of course content as well as finance, we might find the game had passed us by.  Finally, there was also a recognition of the need for Western universities to play a much larger role in Africa where HIV was decimating its own teachers who were, in any case, subject to the pull of the brain drain to countries with higher salaries and higher standards of living.  The plea was made for a more objective look at the question of costs and benefits.  Countries who invested heavily in educating their young people frequently saw them become members of a pool of mobile talent who worked wherever the opportunities and salaries were highest, frequently not in their native countries.

In considering the vexed question of who should pay for the rising costs of higher education in an increasingly competitive international environment we came to the general conclusion that more investment would be required.  We went on to consider the various stakeholders and possible sources of increased funding.  We took into account different social and cultural attitudes to HE.  In the USA it was seen almost universally as the gateway for young people of all backgrounds to success in later life.  This meant that it was relatively easy to find private individuals, particularly alumni, who were prepared to give towards university endowments so that even the most expensive universities like Harvard and Yale could select their students on a means-blind basis.  But, commented an experienced observer of the US system, entry to US universities, including the most prestigious, was on the basis of a much broader examination than in the UK.  If US college applicants were expected to achieve the same high standards in a narrower field of subjects, as in the UK, it would not be possible for the wide range of state high-schools etc to give their pupils a chance to qualify.  And the same occurred at the far end, where with one or two minor exceptions, degrees were not divided into classes as in the UK.

In discussing the possibility of higher contributions from students, a gap became clear between the Anglo-Saxon tolerance for such thinking and that of the continental Europeans for whom such ideas were very foreign to their idea of the state’s obligation to provide free higher education for its younger citizens out of taxes.  We thought that under the pressure of global competition the Continental European and Anglo-Saxon models were set to diverge.  State provision brought with it, however, state intervention in universities.  The remark was made that although the London Business School received only 4% of its funds from the state, it nevertheless received 100% of the state’s regulations.  Less state funding might make universities more consumer-oriented, more dynamic and efficient. Students who contributed more would demand greater transparency and accountability.  There was, therefore, a disposition to see an increased contribution from the biggest beneficiaries, the students, towards their teaching costs, which observed a participant were completely unknown to most students.  Sending them a bill for the full costs with their actual contributions highlighted, might bring home the scale of the benefit they were receiving.

But if students were to pay more, it was important, we thought, to decide when they should make this contribution.  Some were in favour of a tax linked to earnings and capacity to pay after graduation.  Others thought that, while any cap on fees (currently £3,000 proposed for the UK) might be lifted for those who could afford to pay more, it should be accompanied by a lessening of the total burden (full subsiduation) for those who could not afford to pay what was currently asked of them.  Taxation should be progressive and not regressive.  This would help towards a goal to which the majority of us subscribed, to ensure that all social groups had access to HE.  At present there was a danger of polarisation with a small group of high-earners moving further away from the majority.  In looking for an increased contribution from students we noted that, while this seemed to work well in the USA with alumni there willing to make lifelong commitments towards their former colleges, it was not so clear that this system would be easy to transplant to the other side of the Atlantic.  The question was asked, if we were in a globally competitive market for teaching and student talent, would our systems have to become more like those in the USA in order to compete with them.  To which an American participant commented that it would be a mistake to assume that there was a single US system, there were many, reflecting the diversity of the institutions offering tertiary education in the US.

In looking back at the ground we had covered we were inclined to accept the proposition that we were engaged in an evolutionary and not a revolutionary process.  We should build on and adapt the various systems in our different countries.  We could not predict accurately how technology might develop, but it was fairly clear that it would have an impact on how universities would develop:  Bologna would be different on its anniversary in 2088. Universities therefore needed to be agile in adapting to change.  It was to be hoped that talented people would continue to be attracted to work in universities.  While there was no single model for further development, in some people’s view, the encouragement of critical judgement which was essential to university education was probably best achieved in an environment which was also dedicated to research.  More independence for universities seemed desirable.  Central control had rarely resulted in a flowering of creativity.  The comment was made that change management was never easy, particularly where there was strong attachment to cultural roots.  A further comment was made that if we were moving towards a more global market for HE then agreeing on the global dimension of governance would become more important.  In acknowledging that we were moving from a relatively homogenous to a more heterogenous system we also recognised the danger that the winners could take all.  In a final comment on the recent changes introduced in the UK, a participant thought that the greatest challenge would be to reconcile an increasingly privatised system with public expectations.  Would universities also be able to support their local public purposes.  These were likely to be the defining issues for the next generation.

I am grateful to those who attended this conference for the open and direct way in which the issues were addressed, to Ms Margaret Hodge for setting, on the first day, the political framework for much of our discussions and for the willingness of all concerned not just to analyse the issues and make international companions but also to look for policy recommendations to tackle some of the problems we identified.  Policy changes in education take generations to achieve their full effects.  It is a subject to which future Ditchley conferences will no doubt return.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Sir John Kingman FRS
Director, Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, University of Cambridge (2001-);  Vice-Chancellor, University of Bristol (1985-01);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation

Dr Ian Clark
President, Council of Ontario Universities;  formerly:  Comptroller General of Canada
Dr Paul Davenport
President, University of Western Ontario
Dr Doug Wright OC
University of Waterloo, Ontario:  President and Vice-Chancellor (1981-93);  founding member, Prime Minister’s Council on Science and Technology

Ms Svava Bjarnason
Head of Policy and Research, Association of Commonwealth Universities

Dr Patrice Laget
DG Research, Strategy and Policy;  European Commission

Professor Bernard Bobe

Chief Executive Officer, ParisTech (2002);  formerly:  Founder and Chief Executive, Polytechnicum de Marne la Vallée (1993-2002);  author
M Boris Walbaum

Conseiller Technique, Economy and Industry, Ministry of Finance

Dr Wolfgang Zeitler

CEO and board member, Bavarian Elite Academy (1998-);  Chairman, Committee on the Foundation of the Museum of Imagination (the Buchheim collection) (1996-)

Dr Kiran Datar

University of Delhi:  Dean of Colleges, (2000-);  formerly:  Principal, Miranda House, University College for Women (1993-2000)

Professor Malcolm Grant
Pro Vice Chancellor and Professor of Land Economy, University of Cambridge;  Chair, Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission (UK);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation

Dr Barry McGaw

Director for Education, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and development

Dr Andrew Adonis
Prime Minister’s Policy Unit (1998-);  Head of Policy (2001-);  formerly Public Policy Editor, Financial Times;  Political Editor, The Observer
Lord Butler of Brockwell GCB CVO
Master, University College Oxford (1998-);  formerly:  Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service (1988-98);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Sir Colin Campbell Kt DL
Vice Chancellor, University of Nottingham
Dr Paul Clark
Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching), The Open University
Dr David Good
Director, Cambridge/MIT Centre, University of Cambridge
Ms Margaret Hodge MBE MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Barking (1992-);  Minister of State, Department of Education and Skills
Mr Paul Lewis
President, Cambridge University Students’ Union
Professor Sir Christopher Llewelly-Smith
Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Oxford;  Former Provost and President, University College London (1999-2002)
Mr Edward Lucas
Education correspondent, Britain section, The Economist
Professor David Melville
Vice-Chancellor, University of Kent
Professor Stephen Molyneux
Microsoft Chair of Advance Learning Technologies, University of Wolverhampton
Mr Jacob Nell                             
Prime Minister’s Policy Unit
Mr David Normington
Permanent Secretary, Department for Education and Skills
Mr John O’Leary
Editor, The Times Higher Education Supplement
Professor John O’Reilly
Chief Executive, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
Dr David Priestland
Fellow, St Edmund’s College, Oxford;  faculty lecturer in Modern History, University of Oxford
Professor Dame Jessica Rawson CBE
Warden, Merton College, Oxford (1994-);  Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford (2000-)
Professor Adrian Smith
Principal, Queen Mary and Westfield College, London
Ms Auriol Stevens
Former editor, Times Higher Education Supplement;  reporter;  Director:  Universities Information Unit, Committee of Vice-Chancellors (1986-92);  author
The Revd Dr Ralph Waller
Principal, Harris Manchester College, Oxford
Professor Robert Worcester
Chairman MORI (Market & Opinion Research International);  Visiting Professor of Government and Governor, London School of Economics & Political Science;  Governor and Member of Council, University of Kent;  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation

Mr Robert Conway

Senior Director, The Goldman Sachs Group Inc;  Board of Trustees, University of Notre Dame;  President, Harris Manchester College, Oxford University;  a Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation;  Member, Board of Directors and Treasurer, The American Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Allan Goodman
President, Institute of International Education
Dr Nathan O Hatch
Provost, University of Notre Dame (1996-);  Professor of History (1999-);  founder:  Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning
Dr John V Lombardi
Chancellor and Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst;  formerly:  Provost, The John Hopkins University;  President, University of Florida;  author
Mr Alexander Parker
Chief Executive Officer, Global Education Network;  formerly:  The Center for Naval Analyses;  Harvard Faculty of Arts and Science;  McKinsey & Company, New York
Dr Neil L Rudenstine

Chairman of the Board, Digitization Initiative in Art and the Humanities, A W Mellon Foundation, New York (2001-);  formerly:  President, Harvard University (1991-2001)