Making institutional independence a reality

The way in which government funding of universities has corrupted our thinking is illustrated very well by David Willetts’ comments about the awarding of the title “University College” to BPP. David Willetts suggested (Telegraph 26th July) that BPP will only be the second private university – the first being Buckingham University. If the minister for universities is confused about this matter, we have a problem.

What David Willetts really means is that BPP will be the second university to be independent of government. All our universities are private. Indeed, they are more private than the company which owns BPP, in which the public can buy shares. Most of our universities have governance and ownership structures that are impenetrable to the outside world – unlike BPP. The problem with universities is not their ownership but the way in which their priorities and procedures are distorted by government funding. They are private but largely dependent on government.

Some universities are a good deal more independent than others, but an urgent priority in the review of undergraduate funding must be to ensure that all universities become independent as far as teaching is concerned. There should then be a review of research funding. The end results should be that, if the state does provide funding, it is directed through students and the support of research endowment funds. This might make institutional independence a reality in higher education once again.

Philip,I agree with your comments, but isn’t the lesson from David Willetts’ announcement yesterday that it is government who deigns to decide who can call themselves a university?

In ‘The Road to Serfdom’ Hayek wrote: ‘Where .. the central and local authorities directly control the use of more than half the national income .. they control indirectly almost the whole economic life of the nation. There is, then, scarcely an individual end which is not dependent for its achievement on the action of the state..’The supposedly ‘independent’ University of Buckingham participates in the Quality Assurance Assessment [QAA], one of many bureaucratic monstrosities to have emerged in the last 25 years. This is in order to get into the famous League Tables (to help attract students).Hayek was right. No university in this country is now truly independent of government.

Peter, I think that colleges ought to be able to call themselves whatever they like but you are right, the power still lies with the government (though it may not change what BPP actually do)

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