Leader: Freedom from forms

April 20, 2007

For anyone working in a UK university, form-filling has been a one-way ratchet for many years. While most academics like the idea of accountability, the reality has been more work for little reward.

But there are moves in Scotland and England to reduce the vast amounts of information that universities have to provide to funding councils and for much of it to be available openly on university websites. This could make life simpler and add to openness in higher education. But perhaps more important, it would make it clear that universities are independent organisations, run by managers who are overseen by a university council.

The Scottish Funding Council's reforms may even presage moves for all the main funders of universities, including research councils and charities, to agree on what they want to know about the institutions where they are spending money. Putting this information online would make life simpler for funders and outside observers. It would also put pressure on universities with lower than average figures.

But reduced reporting requirements have a downside. If something does go seriously wrong at a university, the public and the Government are bound to ask why the funding council did not know about the problem earlier. Then it will be essential to reinforce the point that universities are free-standing bodies that are responsible for their own futures, not branch offices of a nationalised industry.

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