The latest report on the ‘added value’ of universities in this country undertaken by academics at the University of Strathclyde for Universities UK, has found that “Universities in the UK now generate £59 billion for the UK economy putting the higher education sector ahead of the agricultural, advertising, pharmaceutical and postal industries, according to new figures published today”.
In more detail, Universities UK summarised the report’s findings as follows:
- “The higher education sector spent some £19.5 billion on goods and services produced in the UK.
- Through both direct and secondary or multiplier effects this generated over £59 billion of output and over 668,500 full time equivalent jobs throughout the economy. The equivalent figure four years ago was nearly £45 billion (25% increase).
- The total revenue earned by universities amounted to £23.4 billion (compared with £16.87 billion in 2003/04).
- Gross export earnings for the higher education sector were estimated to be over £5.3 billion.
- The personal off-campus expenditure of international students and visitors amounted to £2.3 billion”.
These are generally interpreted as being very positive results; UK Universities contribute significantly to our economy. Indeed, the Guardian newspaper picks up on the report’s findings, noting in particular that “Higher education generates 2.3% of the UK’s gross domestic product, making it ‘one of the most effective sectors,’ said Ursula Kelly, another of the report’s authors. ‘As a producer of goods and services alone, the sector makes an evidentially large contribution to the UK economy of £19.5bn.’ Universities brought in £5.3bn from overseas students, international conferences and work conducted for overseas businesses. They provide the equivalent of 314,600 full-time jobs, or 1.2% of all full-time jobs in the UK. Those visiting universities from abroad and overseas students spent £2.3bn off-campus, the study found”.
But amidst all this economic justification, let us never forget what universities should be about. Above all universities should be moving the research frontiers forward, developing innovative and creative science and scholarship, and engaging students in the challenge of using this knowledge to make the world a better place. It would be worth doing this even if universities did not make an economic profit. Their value is worth immeasurably more than these crude economic indicators might suggest. One hallmark of a civilised society is that it has a university sector that is vibrant, pursues excellence, and challenges taken for granted assumptions. Access to such universities must remain free for the brightest and most able students. We are in danger of becoming uncivilised.