Here’s an interesting statistic: Harvard University, with an enormous endowment of over $30 billion, hands out more annually in student scholarships than my university gets in income from all sources. Its overall annual income is over 20 times that of Robert Gordon University. In fact, its endowment could pay the full running costs of the entire British higher education sector for a full year; and its annual income is nearly twice that of the entire Irish university sector.
This tells us a number of things. First, however fast other university systems are developing, they won’t catch up with the US any time soon. Secondly, Harvard’s wealth is largely a product of the generosity of its graduates, and on this side of the Atlantic universities must also engage much more closely with the alumni community. Thirdly, financial support for those from a disadvantaged background is a vital part of a successful university system, and I suspect we’ll find that Harvard is paying out more for this than is made available in all of Britain and Ireland put together.
Of course Harvard is not typical in every respect of the US university sector. But even if it were a complete outlier (which it is not) its financial strength should give us pause for thought. There is a real risk that the relatively modestly resourced universities in Europe will lose out to the powerful US ones and the emerging institutions in Asia.
The funding of higher education is, at some level, a social contract. It is an expression of how society wants its universities to develop, and what role it wants them to play. It is unlikely that many universities over here will rival Harvard for money any time soon, but we must start to plan for the longer game. Set against the fees-and-funding chaos in England and the great funding uncertainties in Ireland, Scotland is having a much more stable experience as the government keeps to its promise to close the funding gap between England and Scotland. But at some time here too there will need to be a larger debate about the future: about what we expect of universities, how they will be paid for it, and what contribution they can make to society beyond education.