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.