Event highlights,
The university 3 June 2013

International experts from politics, academia and civil society debate the future for universities in a globalised era.


At the second event of Zamyn’s Cultural Forum 2013 at Tate Modern, London, a panel with experiences at the forefront of academic research and institutional reform in India, South Africa, the US, China and the UK discussed the factors that will define the character of higher education systems across the world in the coming decades. 

Introducing the event, Christopher Cramer, head of the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London, highlighted intersecting themes from ‘The foreigner? Exiles and migrants’, the opening event of the series. He argued that, just as the movement of people is infringed by borders or regulated by identity cards, so the flow of ideas and knowledge is regulated by institutional boundaries, especially when bound up with commodification and market values.

He then introduced the evening’s speakers: director of education and society at the British Council Jo Beall; Stefan Collini, author of What are Universities For?; Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi; Richard Sennett, a sociology professor who has taught in America, Britain, China and online; and UK minister for universities and science David Willetts.

As chair of the discussion, director of SOAS Paul Webley emphasised that the questions the panel would take up were not theoretical but practical, ‘live issues’. He asked participants and the audience to bear in mind that the word university ‘hides a huge variation in the form, function, purpose and practice’ of higher education institutions across the world. He gave as examples the very different challenges faced by Kurdish authorities founding universities separate from state authority, and those faced by authorities in South Korea, where 60 per cent of young adults have degrees, the highest percentage in the world.

During a wide-ranging and heated discussion, David Willetts was challenged by Richard Sennett and Stefan Collini over how the British government is seeking to encourage and maintain a high-quality higher education system, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta sparked a debate on the ‘fundamental imbalances’ between countries, which have to be taken into account if quality education systems are to be established worldwide.

The panellists also addressed the question of whether Massive Online Open Courses – MOOCs – will provide unprecedented opportunities for millions to access affordable higher education, or are, as Richard Sennett argued, ‘not a technical fix’ to underlying challenges.

Audience members included vice-chancellors from several London universities, journalists and student union representatives. In an emotive question and answer session, audience members raised issues such as the importance of who pays, the character of an education institution, the challenge of creating a publicly funded yet autonomous system, and how to change what one audience member called attitudes ‘steeped in colonialism’ still prevalent in UK universities.

President of leading Indian policy think-tank sparks debate on the ‘fundamental imbalances’ that present a challenge to higher education systems across the world.


Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, set an international context for the debate with a series of provocations. He argued that the current phase of globalisation is the product of two fundamental imbalances in the global system. The first he described as a 'demographic imbalance': on the one hand, richer countries tend to have large ageing populations, and on the other hand, poorer countries tend to have large numbers of young people 'not finding enough opportunities for education in their home countries'.

The second imbalance he described as a product of ‘massive governance failures in the global South’. He cited the 5,000 Indian medical students who have gone to institutions in China because the domestic system doesn't cater for them. In the production of knowledge, where the 'top 1 or 2 per cent matters a lot more than anybody else', the structural problem across the world is that 'you have a giant vacuum cleaner for the top one per cent’: the US.

Speaking candidly, David Willetts admitted that ‘Britain has failed to rise to the challenge’ of working with countries such as Indonesia, Columbia, Mexico and Turkey to develop large-scale higher education systems which provide the technical expertise to drive their economic growth.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta suggested that in India there has also historically been a ‘misunderstanding’ of what gives the British and US higher education systems their resilience. He argued that what is successful about those systems is not the existence of a few highly prestigious universities, but the broader diversity of institutions.

David Willetts pointed out the detrimental impact of the UN Millennium Development Goals describing education in terms of schooling only. He recounted meeting ministers of sub-Saharan African countries who have a ‘deep resentment’ of the focus of the development establishment on literacy to the exclusion of support for further education.

Jo Beall, director of education and society at the British Council and former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, turned the focus back on UK universities. She warned them not to ignore what is going on elsewhere in the world and predicted that they have ‘five to ten years’ to maintain their status.

UK minister of state for universities and science challenged by international experts over higher education policies.


The UK minister of state for universities and science, David Willetts, defended his government’s education policy against criticism that the conditions needed for creative and original research to flourish are being squeezed.

American sociologist Richard Sennett outlined two models of assessing the value of research and how to promote it. He drew attention to the example of China over the past few decades. Chinese higher education institutions initially promoted a ‘shopkeeper model’ of funding research, in which money was allocated for very specific results. The results of this funding were ‘dismal, boring, predictable’, he argued, and produced very few patents.

Chinese institutions then switched to an alternative model pioneered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which ‘takes seriously the idea of risk’. Sennett claimed that ‘good science works the way good art does’, and said that MIT has ‘made itself rich’ by recognising that it is often impossible to predict in advance what research will find, and that a degree of autonomy for researchers is critical to success.

He claimed that in China the ‘MIT model’ has now been embraced, whereas ‘we in the West are going in the other direction’.

Stefan Collini, professor of intellectual history and English Literature at Cambridge University and a fellow of the British Academy, continued this argument, stating that there needs to be an effective public discourse about the long-term purposes of universities and a ‘vocabulary for the apparently wasteful aspects of the MIT model’, in order to foster the ‘conditions for high-quality intellectual activity’. He added that the conditions for creativity have a lot in common with the conditions for democratic accountability: both require judgement that goes beyond narrow measurement.

In response, David Willetts sought to differentiate between the example of privately funded Ivy League universities – which he described as a ‘red herring’ in the argument – and what governments can do to encourage high-quality research. He pointed out that £2bn of public money currently goes to UK universities with ‘no strings attached’ to support independent research and open-ended inquiry in the spirit of the ‘MIT model’.

Raising the issue of access to higher education, Anne McElvoy from The Economist magazine challenged the minister to answer whether he would consider borrowing the ‘top 10 per cent rule’ in the US by guaranteeing a university place to the top 3 per cent of pupils from all state schools, which she suggested would alienated the entire middle-class parentage of Britain. David Willetts responded with a firm ‘no’ – he has ‘no desire to control admissions to universities’.

Watch the video here