It was widely assumed that Brian Roper's suggestion that Oxford and Cambridge universities should be compulsorily privatised was not kindly meant.
Certainly, his claim that they are simply finishing schools for the overprivileged did some injustice to the 3,000-plus contract research staff in each university who labour away in their medical schools and laboratories. They are attempting, as the rubric has it, to achieve all things possible for the relief of man's estate. The comments also suggested a certain ignorance about the targets of his criticism.
But I come to praise Roper, not to criticise him. Or at least to give one cheer for him. He asks the right question: what is the Government paying for when it hands out large sums of money to Oxford and Cambridge?
Conversely, if the Government's great aim - as it sometimes seems to be - is to "widen participation", does it get value for money from Oxbridge? Answering these questions is not quite as easy as the vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University appears to think.
Oxford and Cambridge have dropout rates of about 3 per cent. London Met has a rate of about ten times that. To put it another way, if you want three graduates, you have to invest in three at Oxford and Cambridge and four at London Met.
I am a fan of London Met for sentimental reasons. My father, having left school at 13, gave himself an education in the evenings by studying at the Northern Polytechnic up the Holloway Road. It may not be a bad bargain, socially speaking, to invest in universities that have high failure rates; but it may be quite expensive as a way of pursuing the widening-participation agenda.
Try the other government aim: to give students greatly enhanced lifetime earnings. The old figure of an extra £400,000 over a lifetime looks implausible as an average, but given what we are beginning to learn about the differentials between courses and universities, it looks at least as though the money invested in putting a student through Oxbridge yields a much higher return than the (much smaller) sums invested in putting one through London Met.
And yet, it can hardly be denied that Oxbridge - not wholly unlike University College London, Imperial College London and the London School of Economics - not only recruits from a smallish number of schools (and that these are not only disproportionately private but disproportionately favoured state schools) but also recruits from a disproportionately well-off part of the population.
Oxbridge does not recruit the children of Russian oligarchs, Saudi plutocrats and the ludicrously rich, as some American universities do; but it has a very small number of really hard-up students on its books. It was this last fact that led Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, to say that we need a national bursary scheme rather than the goofy "take 30 per cent and spread it among the needy" system we presently have.
Roper would be disappointed if he thought that privatising Oxbridge meant that the entire £160 million it gets from the Higher Education Funding Council for England in its teaching budget would end up in his hands. Suppose he got even the £6 million that Oxford hands out in bursaries; with 23,000 students at London Met, almost all of them eligible for assistance, they would be getting £300 a year rather than the £3,000 bursary students receive at Oxford.
Nonetheless, I think he is right to argue that Oxbridge should be privatised as far as teaching is concerned. The thing the alumni of Oxford and Cambridge most want is for both universities to be able to teach what they want to whom they want and in the way they want; both are fundraising like mad at present, and a campaign to raise the funds for needs- blind admissions in a privatised system would be manageable over a five-year period.
So, one cheer: Roper's premises may be partially flawed, but it is obviously right for the Government to prioritise spending where its policy objectives are - supposing it can get them clear enough to know what it is trying to purchase from the providers. However, that doesn't have the same implications with research.
If it is true that Oxbridge and its peers do not do a great deal for widening participation, even though they bust their guts trying, it certainly isn't true that they do not deliver the research that the Government wants. They may not deliver the technological rejuvenation of small to medium-sized enterprises that ministers also want, but the "third stream" budget is penny packets.
If you want the sort of physics that the University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University do, you have to pay the price that it costs; and once there is a handful of places that do that sort of physics, their advantage over all potential competitors is such that nobody is going to invest in anything else.
Even though it is true that an awful lot of the IT revolution was - or with hindsight is said to have been - put together by two bright graduates in a Palo Alto garage, they were in Palo Alto because that's where Stanford University is, and the venture capitalists, the lawyers and the commercial research labs were there for just the same reason.
And Stanford, as private a university as there is, gets about as large a proportion of its research budget from state and federal funding as Oxbridge gets from the British Government by the various routes through which it comes. It is how modern industrial economies work.
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