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The development of the knowledge economy and government policies conitinues to grow to capacity. This widens access within higher education, making it likely that this contribution will see a significant rise over the next ten years.
The decline in traditional manufacturing and the advent of an economy based on continuous technological change, has placed a premium on the knowledge and skills that are found and developed within higher education.
Universities are central to the development of the UK, a prosperous and competitive knowledge-based economy. Education secretary, Charles Clarke, says universities are: 'Critical to Britain's ability to master a fast changing world'.
Government policies designed to significantly increase the numbers of students in higher education and diversify the social intake into universities are also supporting growth in the sector.
There are currently over 1.8 million students in UK higher education institutions. Although most are in one of the 161 universities, a smaller number are in HE colleges and institutes.
Before 1992, the higher education sector was split into two main parts: polytechnics and universities. The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act gave the polytechnics the right to become universities. These are generally known as 'new' universities.
Further expansion is being considered as the HE sector adapts to new demands and opportunities. The University for Industry (UfI) now exists with a focus on vocational and industrial provision, HE provision is being developed for the NHS, and in-house training provided by large multinational companies may even be accredited.
A further new initiative is the development of an e-University which promotes existing courses electronically. As well as new additions to the sector, existing universities may increase collaboration or merge to form new institutions.
In 2001, the University of North London and City University merged to become London Metropolitan University, and Manchester University and UMIST have created a single new institution.
Over the last decade, HE has undergone enormous expansion and changed considerably. Courses are more vocational, access and participation rates have increased and the UK has moved towards a mass rather than an elite system.
Institutions vary in size, mission and the range of subjects taught, as well as the different concentration on teaching or research. Some institutions exist for a very specific purpose, for example the School of Oriental and African Studies (part of the University of London). Larger institutions such as Manchester Metropolitan University have between 25,000 and 30,000 students.
Different universities have different missions with a local, regional, national or international remit. Student intakes reflect this diversity with some institutions having a largely local or regional intake and some institutions having global participation with a high percentage of international students.
Independence and democracy
Universities' governing bodies are responsible for the effective management, future strategy, planning and monitoring of each institution. These bodies are responsible for the running of the university or college and are accountable to its staff and management.
A typical university has a Vice-chancellor (or Principal in Scotland) who is the head of the organisation. Distinct from this is the Chancellor of the institution, its nominal figurehead.
Many institutions' administrative and management functions are headed by a Registrar and Secretary or their equivalent. The Registrar and Secretary will usually lead or form part of the senior management team of the institution which reports to the Vice-chancellor.
Structure and management
Most people are familiar with the academic side of universities through teaching, research and the academic 'talking heads' who appear in the media. However, for a university to work there have to be effective management and administrative departments as well.
These departments cover all of the typical organisational needs such as finance, personnel/human resources, estates management, IT and information systems, student services, academic management and general administrative, secretarial, maintenance and support functions.
There are various sources of university income, the main one being through the Funding Councils. There are three Funding Councils in the UK:
Universities receive about £5.1 billion per year from the Funding Councils. Almost all of this funding is allocated by formula for teaching and research, depending on the number of students, volume and quality of research. The quality of research is measured by the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) which allocates a grade to every academic department.
In addition, there are six Research Councils which provide funding for research in different areas:
Research funding amounts to approximately £604 million per year and the Research Councils determine the priority areas which they wish to fund.
Universities receive income from student fees, equal to about £1.8 billion per year, although over £1 billion of this is from the government.
Universities also generate income from conferences, endowments, sponsorship, private fees and research income.
HE in the UK is characterised by a high level of external accountability. This happens through the Funding Councils, Research Councils and the Department for Education and Skills.
There are also numerous independent and quasi-governmental agencies which monitor and influence the way a university works, including government departments, regional agencies, charities, professional bodies and learned societies, validating and quality assurance bodies, business and commercial interests and various other government agencies or statutory bodies.
HE is in a constant process of change and adaptation to meet the demands of new legislation such as the proposed Freedom of Information Act, the Race Relations Amendment Act, the Disability Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Act and other major legislative requirements. This means that universities are often at the forefront of effective implementation of progressive legislative change, creating opportunities for strategic thinking and pragmatic policy work.