Dear John: all universities are private not public!

Last week the universities minister David Willetts announced that from 2012 students attending private universities will be eligible for a state-funded loan of £6,000. In response, the shadow universities minister John Denham declared that ‘David Willetts is clearly threatening public universities with cut-price competition from the private sector’.

I hate to nit-pick, but John Denham would do well to remember that there is no such thing as a public university in the UK. Instead all universities are private institutions which are supposed to share the following characteristics: a legally independent corporate structure; charitable status; and accountability through a governing body which carries ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the institution. To be clear, they are all legally recognised as private and not public institutions – a fact which I recommend all politicians should take into account when either speaking in Parliament or designing new public policies. 

Those who are interested in knowing more about how government intervention continues to undermine the independence and autonomy of private institutions in higher education should refer to Chapter 3.3 of The Broken University.

well done - I have been trying to point out this error for years. Michael Gove makes the same mistake when he talks about private schools becoming free schools and joining the state sector. This is wrong, they would become like independent direct grant schools used to be. Indeed, I remember Lord Peston (one of the ring-leaders of the 364 economists and Robert Peston's father) saying that his most tangible achievement as an advisor to the 1970s' Labour government was to persuade them of the merits of abolishing direct grant schools. Imagine if that government had made all schools direct grant schools instead!

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