Independence pays

Malcolm Gillies believes an Ivy League-type system could benefit the UK

January 31, 2013

Last October, in a Gresham College lecture and in Times Higher Education, Terence Kealey relaunched his argument that Britain needs an Ivy League. Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, has pushed similar lines for many years. Not surprisingly. Even if we still aren’t sure what most British universities technically are - public, publicly funded, autonomous, independent? - it is clear what Kealey’s Buckingham is: private.

It is that privacy, that freedom from the strings that come with state funding, that Kealey sees as the precondition for real scholarly excellence.

Being from the “iconic other” - London Met - I was the responder to Kealey at the Gresham College event. To the audience’s surprise, I agreed with the proposition: Britain does need an Ivy League. But my reasons differed from Kealey’s. They were based on a purer application of his own first principle: state funding can limit, constrain, hold accountable, even corrupt.

He is right in recognising that if you take the King’s shilling you have to dance to the King’s tune. But society needs other tunes and other dancing, as well as the King’s. In an interview in the Financial Times on 21 September last year, Kealey explained: “Being private, you can charge whatever fees you want, teach whatever subjects you want, to whomever you want.”

Fine, with regard to education, but universities are also about research. Surely he should also be saying: being private, you can make whatever research charges you want, research whatever subjects you want, for whomever you want.

Now, Kealey does start down this track. In the same interview, he stated that “whenever humans invent things, they do so because they’re driven by hunger or the profit motive, not because someone has given them a grant”. It is “hustling” (his word) that sharpens that inventiveness.

Kealey is not consistent here. The article he wrote for THE ahead of his Gresham College lecture backtracks, saying that it is only in undergraduate teaching that independence is necessary. Independence from government caps and fair-access requirements are named. Anything research- related needs “access to government research funding”, however, and leading institutions “should be free to cherry-pick quality-related research funding”. So much, then, for research independence.

I would agree that the Ivy League institutions have pioneered much outstanding education, but they enjoy “the best of all worlds because they also access vast government research funds”, as Kealey wrote in an article for The Independent in 2006. In 2006, he thought this double-dipping a “smart” thing to do.

But what if a dozen or so leading British universities were truly independent, in such a private league? The public purse could be relieved of 20-25 per cent of national higher education, including research, costs. This British league could provide real alternatives and real choice in post-secondary education: boldly pushing boundaries in teaching methods, curriculum, assessment, with some surely breaking the insidious hold of three-year undergraduate degrees and “skinny” master’s courses.

It could also be a boost for British research, which ails not so much in the quality of the research but rather in its lack of incentive for connection with industry, business and the community. That is, its impact is relatively poor. Although being one of the centres of world capitalism, Britain plays a very state-funded game in research.

Kealey, in his FT interview, is correct. We need more institutions that will not hang around for the next state grant, but will get out there and “hustle”, tapping emerging opportunities. And Kealey’s model of the US is again compelling: about 2.7 per cent of GDP in recent years has been put into research and development, with more than 75 per cent of that connecting with business enterprise. This compares with the UK’s 1.7 per cent, with barely two-thirds connecting in some way to business enterprise.

Kealey’s Ivy League proposal is good for another reason. The Ivy League educates less than 1 per cent of US post-secondary students. So, what of the other 99 per cent? Well, they go to liberal arts colleges, specialist institutes, community colleges and state universities, many of which are, proudly, dependent on state funds and seek to serve the interests of the public, particularly through widening access and meeting local employment needs.

We need more of that variety in Britain. It is not just the quality of elite education but also of mass education that leads to national prosperity.

The Ivy League started out as an “athletic conference”, that is, a sports league. We are ideally placed to emulate that in Britain. In the London Olympics, the alumni of just five British universities gained 11 gold medals: Edinburgh, Nottingham, Oxford, Cambridge and Reading, at least four of which would surely be in Kealey’s British league.

But let’s not forget the “other” Olympics; like mass education, let’s not forget how important the Paralympics were for embracing the “whole community”. The top alumni winners there for post-secondary education were: Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College; Leeds Metropolitan University; Royal Holloway, University of London; Brunel University and Calderdale College. Would any of them be in Kealey’s new British league?

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