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4th November 2011

Are we starving UK education?

Feature: Gareth Lewis shares his view of higher education in the UK and in Hong Kong

Following the publication of the international university rankings last month, Director General of the Russell Group Wendy Piatt had words of warning for the British education sector. ‘Our global competitors are pumping billions into higher education and snapping at our heels.’ At a time when the government is hell-bent on reducing its contribution to university funding, Dr. Piatt insists that ‘money really matters.’

Figures show that under the current funding system, the UK government invests just 0.6 percent of GDP in Higher Education. This compares with an OECD average of 1 percent of GDP. The government has called for UK universities to source more of their income from the private sector. But the University of Manchester’s published accounts from the last financial year show that the public funding for UoM (not counting tuition fees to be repaid) stood at just a quarter of its income. In short, 73.5 percent of Manchester’s income stems from the private sector.

How does this compare with other universities ranked by THES in the top 50 institutions? The University of Hong Kong for example, receives a staggering 60 percent of its income directly from the HKSAR Government. This does not include student loans for tuition fees. This places HKU a mere 14 places ahead of Manchester in the rankings at no. 34 in the world. These figures clearly show the level of financial commitment required from the UK government if it wishes to maintain Britain’s competitive edge in education.

In terms of the student experience, some differences between the two institutions are noticeable. Whilst on exchange at HKU I took courses in humanities and social sciences, so I cannot speak for applied or life sciences, or business. However, One of the greatest advantages HKU had over Manchester in the educational experience, is class sizes. My history lectures, for example, had on average 9 people in the class. This may sound intimidating to some, or perhaps a sign of a failing department. I can however testify to the excellence of arts teaching at HKU, it certainly isn’t struggling. Rather, these small class sizes had the noticeable effect of engendering detailed, incisive and informed class discussion. Everyone prepared because they couldn’t hide in the class. The small lectures took the form of 2 or 3 hour long tutorials and I left them with a head full of information.

The difference as I see it, between Manchester and HKU, is not the standard of teaching. Rather, it is the richer form of teaching that is possible because of smaller classes. Manchester is far better equipped with physical resources at its nine libraries. But the availability of those resources cannot account for the value of a better and more personal education that is facilitated by smaller classes. If these are the advantages that more money can provide, it seems Britain is at a real risk of falling behind.

Gareth Lewis

Gareth Lewis

Former news editor (2011-2012).

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