Don’t be afraid: live in the light

Universities must have at heart a public ethos counterbalance to weigh against commercial interests and state diktat

January 8, 2015

How public should the internal workings of a university be? It’s a question that crops up more and more as changes to university funding encourage increasingly private sector attitudes.

Universities have never been wholly public – a proportion of their funding has long come from private sources – but the rise in tuition fees has significantly altered the income mix.

Last year, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that King’s College London – as an institution that receives a lot of public money – would have to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request for details of staff salaries above £100,000. King’s appealed, and the decision was partially overturned, on the basis that there was a “real and significant risk of prejudice to its commercial interests” if data on high academic pay were published. The judge took a different view about the King’s leadership team, however, saying that the college should be able to justify the salaries of senior administrators to staff and donors.

It must be in the public interest for institutions to be open, accountable and ‘public’ in spirit, no matter what the balance sheet may say

King’s is appealing against that ruling.

Many other higher education institutions take the same view about the sensitivity of salary data, as is clear from the news story this week based on an FoI request seeking the same information sector-wide.

Of the 37 institutions that replied (compliance with FoI laws remains patchy), 20 refused the request, citing commercial confidentiality.

Others, however, were open to scrutiny (and, presumably, do not feel that their chances of hiring staff in the future will be damaged by the revelation that they pay well).

Particularly noteworthy among those is the London School of Economics, for if any mainstream institution is able to argue that it is not publicly funded in a meaningful sense, it is surely the LSE. With its high proportion of overseas students, just 10.1 per cent of the LSE’s teaching funding comes from the state, yet it did not invoke the dubious invisibility cloak of commercial confidentiality.

Indeed, it must be in the public interest for higher education institutions to remain transparent, accountable and “public” in spirit, even if the detail of their balance sheet may afford a different interpretation.

Having to straddle the public and the private can be uncomfortable; at times, it leaves universities open to inappropriate intervention from the government.

An example is the counter-terrorism bill, due to have its third reading in Parliament this week, which has caused concern about the co-opting of academics to monitor students.

In our opinion pages, Martin Hall, until recently vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, makes a compelling case for autonomy in this regard, arguing that universities are, by their very nature, engaging with and working through the issues that the bill seeks to address.

Far from tightening things up, the bill, by diverting academics from their role as teachers and mentors into de facto “securocrats”, risks reducing universities’ ability to defuse potentially problematic situations, he argues.

There’s no doubting the role of universities as they guide so many young people through a stage of life when they are pushing boundaries, networking as never before and developing ideas and, sometimes, ideologies. But it’s by challenging, debating and engaging, not by censoring and alienating, that universities serve all our interests, including those of the students.

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