05 March 2009 - 07 March 2009

Universities: securing the future

Chair: Mr Bahram Bekhradnia

In setting the question of how universities in advanced democracies could ensure a healthy future for themselves and for society generally, Ditchley was in fact stimulating a debate on what universities are for and whether they were fulfilling society’s expectations of them in a rapidly changing world.  Given the extraordinary range of senior experience represented at the table, the debate was bound to confront a variety of opinions and a number of obstacles to easy consensus.  As one participant noted, perhaps the vigour and incoherence of the discussion reflected the nature of universities themselves.  This Note will attempt to reflect fairly the breadth of issues covered and, perhaps a touch more artificially, the range of coherent conclusions that could be drawn from it.  But there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the opportunity to ponder the true value of universities in modern life was a timely one.

A gathering of such powerful academics would not have lived up to character if there had not been at least one problem of definition.  We decided, more or less firmly, that we were talking primarily about universities as places where research and advanced education went hand in hand with a solid element of choice and independence as to what was studied, but that our discussions had to be in the context of the wider higher education sector as a whole.  Universities were described as centres for the creation, preservation, transmission and transformation of knowledge, going some way beyond the higher-level education of people.  As for their role in society, we were reminded that, of the eighty-five identifiable institutions that have survived since the early sixteenth century, eighty are universities;  and of the thirteen oldest human institutions still surviving, eleven are universities.  This drove home the quality of universities as communities and in the end most participants were satisfied with the description of a university as an “autonomous scholarly community”. 

Wisely, we did not spend too much time in trying to describe the nature of global change.  No-one was in much doubt that the coming period would pose hard challenges, even for institutions which had proved their adaptability over the centuries.  Unsurprisingly, given the force of the economic storms now blowing, some participants believed that the disruption for universities would be quite profound, especially in the area of funding. 

Participants agreed that the impact of modern communications technology was bound to be immense, not least because it was changing the way in which students worked and therefore in what they demanded of their teachers.  In some respects competition between universities would be increased;  in other ways collaboration would become more frequent and productive.  In addition, communications and information technology offered the prospect – actually being realised in some cases – of competition between universities and non-university institutions.  While it might not matter at the surface that learning styles, and therefore teaching styles, were rapidly changing, it was an important issue if the rigour of students’ thinking processes was affected, or if the authority of faculty staff was diminished in students’ eyes.  Universities were having difficulty in judging what investments to make in new technology and how to connect the “cottage industry” activities of individual colleges and departments with the open space of the internet.  But there was plenty of evidence that universities were coming to grips with this area of change in innovative and sensible ways, so long as they were not too sentimentally attached to the past or reluctant to understand the way the new world worked.

We had some energetic exchanges on what society might need from universities and indeed on whether that mattered.  There was a reluctance to consider universities as the servants of society, when they could be more readily regarded as a reflection of society’s diversity.  If societies and their economies needed innovation, scientific research, challenges to conventional thinking and brave experiments, universities needed both independence and adequate resources to develop these.  In countries where government was an important source of funding, however, the expectations placed on universities to deliver beneficial outcomes was bound to be a pressure.  In a more open and competitive world, the tendency to a more utilitarian view of universities as contributors to economic and other forms of progress was likely to grow.  This accent might be even stronger in a period of deep and synchronised recession, if people increasingly looked to universities for solutions.  Several participants spoke of the risk that governments and society might have unrealistic views of the extent to which universities could provide solutions to “today’s” as distinct from “tomorrow’s” problems;  and the different timescales to which governments and universities worked was a related issue that permeated the discussions.  Nevertheless, this criterion of “relevance” could not just be batted away;  and some participants placed an emphasis on the development of new relationships between universities on the one hand and governments and the private sector on the other.  This might lead to pressure for universities to serve the knowledge communities in directions in which they might not always be happy to travel.  But our discussion did not appear to see this as an insurmountable problem, so long as universities were left to respond freely to these requirements and to develop other areas of study and research as they saw fit.  They also had to factor in the expectations of students, who might have a wider choice nowadays of sources of knowledge and learning, some of which might be a good deal less expensive for them than a university course.  The effects of these considerations on government policy approaches and on funding are discussed further below. 

This brought us to the governance of universities, which was of concern to quite a number of participants but where it was difficult to expand on specific governance approaches because of the wide variety of systems to be found in the countries represented at the table.  Most participants felt strongly that universities had to be left to make their own independent decisions on what they chose to do and how they chose to administer themselves.  Universities could not become tools of other sectors of society, even of government.  They had to articulate lines of enquiry, research and action which carried a fundamental strength and importance in themselves;  and they had to have the capacity to explain these approaches to government, the business sector and the media.  Nothing we heard at this conference suggested that the best universities were getting this wrong or should be governing themselves in fundamentally different ways.  Out of this emerged a growing focus in our discussion on leadership.  There were some who felt that asking whether a university was well governed was not as important as asking whether it was well led.  But there was a lack of clarity about whether governance should be a legitimate career path in itself, given that many of the most able faculty members did not wish to be promoted into administration.  Nevertheless, there was a clear consensus that as the world changed, there was a need for a new generation of university leaders who understood what universities needed to do in this era to prepare for the challenges of the next.  This could be the most productive way of looking at the crisis of rapid change. 

There was very little dispute about the need for universities to remain autonomous.  They had to maintain – or rediscover – a sense of fundamental confidence in their core activities and establish relationships with government and the private sector that stopped short of the cooption of university capacity for the interests of those sectors or for driving technological advances.  What other institutions or sectors of society could so competently and effectively transmit the lessons from past civilisation;  deliver the right values of intellectual and ethical behaviour;  persuade students to discriminate between sources of different quality;  develop powerful minds with the free choice to seek answers;  and create graduates with the right skills for the new economy?  Universities did this by probing, analysing, debating and publishing and by following their own judgement on the right subjects to pursue. 

Several participants suggested, nevertheless, that there had to be an element of planning at the national level to ensure that universities stayed within the right territory of national interest and social acceptability.  Access to universities should not be so restricted that clever people from disadvantaged backgrounds found it hard to enter them.  It was natural for universities to recruit students from the middle class, with social traditions and a certain image which might discourage others.  Governments would always find it difficult to undo this tendency, but it did no harm for them to promote a system where students whose families could afford it paid a realistic element of their costs, while more funding went into scholarship systems for those who could not do that.  The important point was to protect universities from short-term political pressures and encourage government to develop a long-term strategic approach which covered access, equity and accountability as well as a representative spread of subject study.  Many participants felt that these questions had not been fully thought through, nor a sufficient sense of agreement and coordination established between universities and governments. 

This took us into the whole area of funding pressures.  No university existed that believed it had fully adequate resources in every respect and it was inevitable that aspirations developed beyond the means to fulfil them.  It was clear that the United States, with universities benefiting from much greater endowments than elsewhere, had achieved a high quality across the board over the past century.  But even there a crisis of several years in the making was beginning to hit them, more so as the economic recession deepened.  The full tuition fee anywhere was very high and a gap was growing between the economic cost of study and what students could afford.  Few people doubted that universities would be more constrained over the coming period, with students having to make difficult choices.

We also had to contend with the forceful argument that there was no clear evidence that a vigorous university sector, requiring quite large sums of government funding, delivered higher economic growth or did anything but crowd out funding for other productive avenues.   But most participants considered that this was not quite the point:  universities were not funded to serve the economy.  Current economic circumstances would be bound to reduce governments’ flexibility in the funding they had to offer and what students required or demanded might well change.  It was not impossible that universities might have to collaborate or integrate.  But it was acknowledged that, as different sectors competed for public money, universities might be tested on the “public good” which they represented.  Not even universities could easily ask for both funding and complete autonomy if resources were scarce.  The area of research was perhaps most likely to be subjected to these sorts of pressures, if expectations grew that universities had to contribute better to solving global problems, for instance in the area of climate change.  Before these pressures grew too strong, universities might have to discuss them in depth with governments and with other sources of funding, for instance philanthropic foundations.  Financial independence might not be sustainable just on the grounds that it was such an important element of the character of a university.

The interesting aspect about our discussion of the contribution which universities make to economic growth and a healthy business sector was that it made participants think carefully about the utilitarian value of universities.  While there was general agreement that short-term direction of the substance covered by university activity was to be avoided, in the longer term there was nevertheless a great deal of sense in fostering a sensible two-way relationship between universities and the business sector.  Indeed, over the past two decades or so that relationship had become calmer and more normal, to the benefit of both sides.  It was particularly interesting to hear an American participant describe what business groups told him they needed universities to produce:  first of all, critical thinkers of high quality;  then, problem-solvers;  strong communicators, particularly oral;  people with good foreign languages;  team workers;  and, to a limited degree, people who understood the workings of government and regulation.  There was no suggestion that universities should be contracted to produce a certain number of people with these skills, nor that universities failed to do so as part of their normal outcome.  In other words, universities could not be expected to be handmaidens to business, but there was an important interaction here which was likely to continue into the future in a healthy way. 

We took a close look at the role of governments.  They had to set the context for university education and to provide a degree of oversight in the public interest.  Ideally, this should be done with consistent clarity over the long term, without disruptive changes.  It was also important for government to ensure equity of access to universities and to spread the opportunities for tertiary education fairly.  We were also reminded, however, that governments had to account for their funding of any sector and it was inevitable that this would involve occasional short-term interventions and detailed examination of how public money was being spent.  There was no reason why this should not be possible through the medium of a steady relationship between government and universities, just as with the business sector.  The fact was that universities were the gateway to a competent professional adulthood for quite a proportion of the population, especially in the middle classes.  A huge diversity of learning was necessary, which universities were capable of managing in detail better than government.  At the margins, there might be government pressure for an emphasis on vocational and technological skills where demand was outstripping supply.  But this was a running adjustment that could be made within the context of that relationship. 

For all the dynamism of this discussion, it was hard to identify a consensus on the right strategic context for university education or on clear priorities for university administrators to pursue.  In different national systems, and in different types of university, a variety of approaches could be identified which were not easy, and which it might not be right, to meld into a single set of prescriptions.  In this we came close to identifying universities as a reflection of human life itself, at the high intellectual level.  This might go some way to explaining why they had survived so successfully over the past nine hundred years and why they could not be reduced to simple business models.  The challenge left at the end of this debate, therefore, was to form a view of where true north lay for the university compass.  Should it be pure academic excellence or should it be a service to society?  Perhaps the best answer was to leave it as a combination of both those things, encompassing:  the search for truth;  the building of good minds;  high-quality research in any area where good minds wanted to go;  the encouragement of innovation;  the challenging of conventional ideas (speaking truth to power);  and the training of useful skills where market forces encouraged this.  If these were sensible ingredients for “true north”, then an element of protection for universities to pursue this course had to be provided by government and by society, with a clear understanding of the intangible as well as the utilitarian value of all the activities which universities embraced.  If such activity also generated a moral force, inherent in the search for truth and in the encouragement of intellectual strengths, then that too was something which could not easily be costed in a quantifiable way. 

In the end, at least from the viewpoint of this observer, the vigour of the discussion triumphed over the incoherence of it.  No-one in this experienced company believed that the next period would be easy, in terms of finding the resources for and protecting the integrity of university activity.  But there was an underlying confidence that universities were going to be around for a long time to come, doing the things which they had always done.  Ditchley owes its thanks to the members of this remarkable group for giving up their time to examine these questions, and in particular to our Chairman, who pushed and prodded us round the obstacles to focus on the things which really mattered.  If the accuracy of a few more compasses has been refined by this event, then we can be well satisfied.

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


Chairman:  Mr Bahram Bekhradnia
Director, Higher Education Policy Institute (2002-).  Formerly:  Director of Policy, Higher Education Funding Council for England (1992-2002).

Dr Paul Boothe

Senior Associate Deputy Minister, Industry Canada, Ottawa (2007-).  Formerly:  Professor of Economics, University of Alberta.  Member, Program Advisory Committee, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Jacques Frémont
Provost and Vice-Principal, Academic Affairs, University of Montreal (2007-);  Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Montreal.
Dr Indira Samarasekera OC
President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Alberta (2005-);  Member, Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on Public Service.

Professor Bernard Bobe

Professor of Economics and Management, Ecole National Supérieure de Chimie, ParisTech and University Pierre & Marie Curie, Paris (2005-).  Formerly:  Chief Executive Officer, ParisTech (2002-05);  Founder and Chief Executive, Polytechnicum de Marne la Vallée (1993-2002).

Prof Dr Dieter Lenzen

President, Freie Universität Berlin (2003-);  Vice-President, German Rectors’ Conference (2007-);  Professor of Philosophy of Education and Chair of Aktionsrat Bildung, Vereinigung der Bayerischen Wirtschaft e.V. (2005-).

Mr Richard Jackson

President, Anatolia College, American College of Thessaloniki, Association of American International Colleges and Universities.  Formerly:  US Foreign Service Officer (1965-99).

Dr Farideh Mashayekh

Strategic Consultant in Educational Planning and Pedagogy, Pedagogy.ir, Iran.

Mr David White

EU Visiting Fellow, European University Institute.  Formerly:  European Commission:  Director, Education policy;  Director, Innovation policy;  Director, Enterprise policy;  Head, Regulatory policy;  Head, Public Procurement policy.

Mr Richard Yelland

Head, Education Management and Infrastructure Division, OECD Directorate for Education.  Formerly:  Department for Education and Science, United Kingdom (1974-85).

Dr Jan Sadlak

Director, UNESCO-European Centre for Higher Education (1999-);  Member Correspondent, European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities, Academia Europensis, Paris;  Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science, San Francisco.

Mr Lennart Ståhle

Swedish Higher Education system (1972-);  Head, University Chancellor’s Office, The Swedish National Agency for Higher Education.

Professor Georges Haddad

Director, Division of Higher Education, UNESCO (2004-);  Honorary President, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.  Formerly:  Member, Task Force on Higher Education in Developing Countries (World Bank-UNESCO) (1998-2000).

The Rt Hon Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone

Life Peeress (2005-);  Chancellor, University of Hull (2006-);  Pro Chancellor, University of Surrey (2005-);  a Governor, London School of Economics.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
The Rt Hon Lord Butler KG GCB CVO
Life Peer (1998-).  Formerly:  Master, University College, Oxford (1998-2008);  Chairman, Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004);  Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service (1988-98).  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Professor David Eastwood
Chief Executive, Higher Education Funding Council for England;  Vice-Chancellor designate, University of Birmingham (2009-).
Professor Stephen Emmott
Director, Computational Science, Microsoft Research, Cambridge;  Professor of Computational Science, University of Oxford;  Visiting Professor of Intelligent Systems, University College London;  Trustee, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (2008-).
Dr Terence Kealey
Vice-Chancellor, The University of Buckingham (2001-).
Sir John Kingman FRS
Formerly:  Director, Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge (2001-06);  Chairman, Statistics Commission (2000-03);  Vice-Chancellor, University of Bristol (1985-2001).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Colin Lucas
Chief Executive, Rhodes Trust and Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford.  Formerly:  Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford (1997-2004).
Professor Alison Richard
Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge (2003-).
Sir Muir Russell KCB FRSE
Principal, University of Glasgow (2003-).  Formerly:  Permanent Secretary, Scottish Executive (1999-2003).
Professor Sir Peter Scott
Vice-Chancellor, Kingston University (1998-).  Formerly:  Pro Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Education, University of Leeds;  Director, Centre for Policy Studies in Education;  Editor, The Times Higher Education Supplement (1976-92).
Dr Ruth Thompson
Director General, Higher Education, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
Mr Richard Tomlin
Director, Bluebell Research Limited (2002-);  Lecturer and Consultant to Universities and Research Institutes across Europe;  Business Director, Europlanet Consortium (2009-).  Formerly:  Director, Centre for Higher Education Research (1997-2000) and Director, Research Services (1992-97), Newcastle University.
Mr David Willetts MP
Member of Parliament, Conservative, Havant (1992-);  Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (2007-).  A Governor and Member of the Programme Committee, The Ditchley Foundation.

Dr Rosamunde Becker

Senior Research Officer, The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.

Professor Malcolm Grant CBE MA LLD 
President and Provost, University College London;  Chairman, Russell Group;  Member:  Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Hong Kong University Grants Committee.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.

Dr Jennifer Barnes FRSA

President, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge (2008-).  Formerly:  Director, Global Education, BP;  Dean, Trinity College of Music.
Mr Robert Conway
Senior Director, The Goldman Sachs Group Incorporated;  Board of Trustees, University of Notre Dame;  Member, The Council of the Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago;  President, Harris Manchester College, Oxford.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation;  Member, Board of Directors and Treasurer, The American Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Scott Thompson
Rhodes Scholar, Social Policy, University of Oxford.  Formerly:  Teacher of Social Studies and History, Teach for America, South Bronx.
Professor Richard Trainor
Principal, King’s College London (2004-);  President, Universities UK (2007-);  US/UK Fulbright Commissioner (2003-);  Arts and Humanities Research Council (2006-).
Professor Sir Robert Worcester KBE DL
Chancellor, University of Kent (2006-);  London School of Economics:  Governor (1995-);  Visiting Professor (1992-).  Formerly:  Founder (1969) and Chairman (1973-2005), Market and Opinion Research International Limited (MORI).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

The Hon Dr John Brademas

President Emeritus, New York University (1992-).  Formerly:  Chairman, American Ditchley Foundation (1990-2006);  President, New York University (1981-92);  Member, 86th-96th Congresses (1950-81).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation;  Board of Directors, The American Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Carl Hayden
Chairman, Board of Trustees, State University of New York (SUNY) (2007-);  Chancellor Emeritus, University of the State of New York (USNY) (2002-);  Chair, Chemung Country School Readiness Project.
Professor William Massy
Consultant to Higher Education (1985-).  Formerly:  President, The Jackson Hole Higher Education Group (1995-2007);  Professor (1962-2002), Vice President for Business and Finance (1979-90), and Vice Provost for Research (1972-79), Stanford University.
Mr John O’Connor
Vice Chancellor and Secretary, The State University of New York (1996-);  President, The Research Foundation of the State University of New York (2000-)  Chair, Board of Trustees, Saint Mary’s College;  Executive Director, The American Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Thomas Parker
Senior Associate and Director, Global Center on Private Financing of Higher Education, Institute for Higher Education Policy, Washington DC.
Dr Charles Reed
Chancellor, California State University System (1998-);  Member, President’s Roundtable, National Board of Professional Teaching Standard (2005-);  Member, Board of Directors, National Center for Educational Accountability (2002-);  Member, College Education National Board, The College Board (2001-);  Member, Board of Directors, ACT Inc (2001-);  Chair, Finance and Audit Committee;  Member, Council on Foreign Relations, New York (1987-).
Professor Stephen Trachtenberg
President Emeritus and University Professor of Public Service, George Washington University.  Formerly:  President, George Washington University (1988-2007).
Mr David Wheeler
Managing Editor, Chronicle of Higher Education.