We're still able to enjoy stories about the Asian Tiger mums who insist on 6 hours homework each night and students hooked to IV energy drips in exams. But how long before we can't see the funny side anymore? The cost of a UK degree looks high now - what about when Asia is entirely self-sufficient in its education provision and the overseas 'subsidy' runs dry?
We were recently involved in the promotion of a new Higher Education ranking from Universitas 21 [http://tinyurl.com/d87q3vu] not institutions, but whole national HE systems. The UK came in 10th. The better news is that the future competitors appear some way back, with China 39th and India bottom in 48th. With the kind of ambition and dynamism being shown by countries like China, you can bet the gap is going to close quickly. Singapore is already just one place behind the UK in 11th and Hong Kong 18th.
The international quest for "excellence in education" means the rise of large-scale university machines. Can the UK ever keep up? There's a general acceptance we have a good university offering, steeped in a tradition of quality, but maybe also a feeling that our system is getting left behind, being a little slow and under-resourced to be part of a new HE jet set.
A closer look at the Universitas 21 ranking figures however shows a miracle of efficiency. While our system ranked only 27th in terms of resources (funding from state and private sources), it ranked 2nd in outputs (research impact and quality of graduates). What our university system does have is a particular character and strength in depth, its own culture. It's still about individual human beings, supporting difference in ways of thinking and approach, developing gumption and even - just don't tell the Asian Tiger mums - the value of failure. UK universities aren't factories, they're too idiosyncratic and quirky, and difficult for anyone to replicate.
Perhaps the only thing missing is confidence. HE should be an engine for any country - encouraging people to be independent and take educated risks. The UK has a Rolls-Royce engine and deserves that recognition and support. And money isn't everything - maybe it's even the struggle and diversity which gives the system its real strength. Pouring money into the system might only encourage the creation of shiny HE clones of homogenised "excellence" - and we've already got something better than that.