UK Universities & a pinch of salt

“Universities make £60bn a year for UK economy, study finds” faithfully reports the Guardian.

Pinch of Salt

UK Universities report, produced for Universities UK by Ursula Kelly, Donald McLellan and Emeritus Professor Iain McNicoll of the University of Strathclyde, attempts to show how profitable and integral the university ‘industry’ is. Apparently, “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 report has a section on methodology so we thought we’d take a look and see how they came to such a figure:

    Methodology and data sources

“The study is based on the 166 universities and colleges included in Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data for the academic year 2007/08. The study examined the key economic characteristics of universities and the impact generated by their activity. It also considered the impact of the offcampus expenditure of EU and international students (that is, all non-UK domiciled students) studying at UK universities. Modelled estimates were also made of the impact of the off-campus expenditure of international visitors attracted to the UK by the universities. The off-campus expenditure of UK domiciled students was excluded as this may not be regarded as additional to the UK economy as a whole.

The model used was a purpose designed and specially constructed ‘type II’ input-output model based on actual UK data derived from the Office of National Statistics’ input-output tables (2006) together with data from its ‘Blue Book’ (2008). Data on university finance, staffing and students were obtained from HESA. Other data sources included Travel trends (Office of National Statistics) and a student expenditure survey (2009), published by the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, as well as the Labour Force Survey and Annual Business Inquiry.”

This methodology doesn’t seem too unusual although the fact “the off-campus expenditure of UK domiciled students was excluded”will ring alarm bells. Not sure either what we are to make of: “this may not be regarded as additional to the UK economy as a whole.”

Even if benefit of the doubt is given, however, the more serious point about these reports commissioned by self-interested, pressure groups like UK Universities is that they will always be suspected of manipulating the data to suit their own agenda. In this case, UK Universities is run to promote the interests of university executives (‘Universities UK is the major representative body and membership organisation for the higher education sector. Our members are the executive heads of UK universities.’). Whatever they are motivated by – promoting their employers, furthering their careers, making money – they would not seem to prioritise the interests of academics, students or support staff.

As a result of this, it is fairer to say that pressure group surveys and reports tell us more about how competing education interests operate in the UK today than what, for example, the real impact of universities is.

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