Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico

Go to…

Four in five Britons say universities key to tackling global problems – but challenges remain for sector

Major new international survey across 11 countries

university graduates

80% of people in Britain say research universities have an important role to play in addressing the key challenges the world faces, according to a major new international survey across 11 countries. 

Two-thirds (64%) of Britons also say universities have a positive impact on the country.

The results come as university researchers around the world have played a key part in the response to coronavirus, and as the higher education sector is under significant strain due to disruption caused by the pandemic.

The Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos MORI surveyed 10,502 people across 11 countries between 20 March and 3 April for the study.

View the report for charts and full findings >

The research was conducted to coincide with the US-UK Fulbright Commission’s 2020 lecture by Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California and former US Secretary of Homeland Security under Barack Obama, on 2 July. Each year, the US-UK Fulbright Commission selects a global leader for this lecture series. Due to Covid-19, this year it will take place as a virtual conversation, focusing on the value of university research and innovation globally, and the future of higher education in times of crisis.

The findings also reveal an appetite for continued expansion of university education in Britain:

  • 60% of Britons say access to universities should be expanded, compared with 17% who disagree.
  • There is a more mixed view on whether the benefits of going to university outweigh the expense of doing so, but Britons are still significantly more likely to agree than disagree that this is the case (44% vs 28%).

However, the British public have a less favourable view of the value and skills that a university education offers, and are less likely to think universities produce other benefits: 

  • Half (51%) think universities do not equip students with the skills needed to be successful in a career in Britain, twice as many as the quarter (25%) who think they do.
  • 52% think a university degree does not lead to a higher salary in Britain, compared with a quarter (25%) who think it does.
  • 38% say universities have a positive impact on them personally, and 47% and 44% say they have a positive impact on their family and friends and their local communities respectively. However, 25% say universities have a negative impact on them personally in Britain, and Britons are among the least positive about universities’ impact on local communities out of the 11 countries surveyed.
  • 39% say universities generally help to reduce problems of inequality in Britain, while 31% say they don’t.
  • 65% think the value of a degree has declined in the past 10 years in Britain, compared with 17% who do not.

Professor Ed Byrne, President & Principal of King’s College London, said:

“It’s clear the public recognise the vital importance of universities in tackling global challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic. Academic researchers around the world have helped guide governments through the crisis, and we would no doubt be much worse off without the evidence, expertise and data they’ve provided.

“However, British public opinion is more mixed on other aspects of universities’ roles. On the positive side, people are more likely to think the benefits of going to university outweigh the costs, and a large majority want access to be further expanded. But two-thirds of Britons think a university degree is worth less than it was 10 years ago, and half think students are not being equipped with the skills they need to be successful in their careers.

“Universities have made a compelling case for the benefits of their expertise in times of crisis. But as the after-effects of the extraordinary measures to control Covid-19 start to be felt, including in tighter government and individual budgets, universities will need to do a better job in demonstrating the direct value they bring to society, communities and individuals.” 

Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, said:

“I am proud to join the Fulbright Commission, as well as educators and students across the UK, for a conversation about the important role of higher education in shaping our future. The survey results show that universities are critical in developing solutions to worldwide challenges. They also reveal the significant gap between perception and reality when it comes to the value of higher education in the US and around the world. Hard data reveal that universities actually provide lifelong advantages in opportunity and income for graduates while boosting economic growth.”

Kelly Beaver, Managing Director of Public Affairs at Ipsos MORI, said:

“This research highlights the range of positive impacts that universities create such addressing the key challenges the world face. But there is a more mixed view of whether people think going to university is worth it compared to the expense of doing so, and whether going to university has any impact on future earning potential.

“A global crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the importance of universities who are at the cutting edge of research and who add significant value to their countries, both economically and socially.”

Maria Balinska, Executive Director of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, said:

“At this time of international crisis and instability it is encouraging to see people around the world acknowledging that universities are good at solving tough problems. However, the public’s ambivalence around the benefits universities bring to individuals and the community at large also sends a clear message to international education exchange fellowships such as the Fulbright programme. We need to be more effective in promoting the work of our fellows in civic engagement, compassionate leadership and international collaboration.”

International findings

  • Three-quarters (77%) of people across the 11 countries surveyed agree that research universities have an important role to play in addressing the key challenges the world faces. 7% disagree.
  • Among all countries surveyed, 65% say universities have a positive impact on their country, while smaller majorities see them as having a positive impact on their family and friends (58%), local community (57%) and them personally (54%).
  • Of all nations polled, people in France are least likely to say universities have a positive impact across these measures, while people in China are most likely.
  • 36% of people in the US agree that the benefits of going to university outweigh the expense of doing so – the lowest of any country surveyed. This is balanced by 36% who disagree that the benefits outweigh the expense.
  • Despite people in China being most likely (86%) to say the benefits of a university education outweigh the costs, and most likely to see universities as having positive impacts, they are also most likely to say that:
  • the value of a degree in their country has declined in the last decade (76%)
  • universities do not provide students with the necessary skills to be successful (77%).

 

And they are second-most likely (70%) after Spain (73%) to say that a university degree does not lead to a higher salary in their country.

  • People in Germany (40%), France (45%) and Canada (48%) are least likely to think that universities fail to equip students with the skills they need to be successful in a career in their country.
  • People in the same countries – Germany (41%), France (47%) and Canada (49%) – are also least likely to think that a degree won’t lead to a higher salary in their country.

The findings of the research mirror themes highlighted in Professor Byrne’s most recent book, The University Challenge: Changing Universities in a Changing World, co-authored with former UK Education Secretary Charles Clarke.

View the report for charts and full findings >

Technical details

  • These are the findings of a survey conducted in 11 countries via Global Advisor, the online survey platform of Ipsos, between 20 March and 3 April 2020. For this survey, Ipsos interviewed a total of 10,502 adults aged:

    • 16-74 in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Italy and Spain;
    • 18-74 in Canada and the United States of America.

  • The sample consists of 1,000+ individuals in each of Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and the U.S., and of c.500 individuals in India.
  • The data is weighted so each country’s sample composition best reflects the demographic profile of its adult population according to the most recent census data, and to give each country an equal weight in the total “global” sample. Online surveys can be taken as representative of the general working-age population in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and the United States. Online samples in other countries surveyed are more urban, more educated and/or more affluent than the general population and the results should be viewed as reflecting the views of a more “connected” population.

Sample surveys and polls may be subject to other sources of error, including, but not limited to coverage error, and measurement error. The precision of online surveys conducted on Global Advisor is measured using a Bayesian Credibility Interval. Here, the poll has a credibility interval of +/-3.5 percentage points for countries where the sample is 1,000+ and +/- 4.8 points for countries where the