Few things in public life are more panic-inducing than the arrival of the Whitehall investigators. But the inquiry into universities planned by the Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Task Force is an opportunity the sector should use to improve its systems and to assure the government that it is serious about its own effectiveness.
Research performed for the Higher Education Funding Council for England shows that English universities are spending about £250 million a year on proving their accountability. This is too much and is more than Hefce allocates to Oxford and Cambridge universities put together. Perhaps even more damaging than this expense is the deterrent effect of the myriad small schemes that Hefce and the other funding councils run to encourage behavioural change in the sector. Although many have laudable aims, universities often decline to bid for the cash on offer because of the management time eaten up in applying for small sums of money.
The fact that Hefce has commissioned consultants to analyse the problem shows that it is aware of the issues. But Sir Howard Newby, Hefce chief executive from Monday, may have a hard task in justifying the funding council's role as manager rather than funder of the university sector. Sir Howard has made a strong case that the United Kingdom has too many universities, but it is a big step from this conclusion to using public money to encourage mergers.
The arrival of the task force will also focus attention on the future of the Quality Assurance Agency, which might have hoped for some peace with the departure of John Randall, the near-abandonment of Teaching Quality Assessments and the compromise on a 10 per cent assessment level. But two key constituencies - the Russell Group universities that think 10 per cent is too much and the students who think it is too little - are unhappy. The consultation on the new system closes next month, but there must be doubts about whether it is worth holding just before the task force reports in the new year.
Much the same applies to student complaints. Nobody would argue that today's systems meet the task-force criteria of being "simple to understand and easy to administer", much less "command(ing) public support". A single system with full legal redress, including an ombudsman for the whole sector, is likely to look better to the task force than the old universities' schemes to retain visitors and other relics of a less accountable age.
From the point of view of universities and the people who work in them, the time is ripe for a deep and wide look at the control of British academic life, considering the need for organisations to exist as well as their day-to-day procedures. By the time the task force reports, the 2001 research assessment exercise will have reported. Is it a valid machine for rewarding and encouraging research excellence? The current RAE has generated fewer complaints than its predecessors. But perhaps a simpler and more flexible system might mean better governance - or central research funding could be abolished altogether, as Julian Le Grand proposes (right).
If the task force's findings can reduce the amount of effort the academic system puts into justifying itself, they will be welcome to academics and managers alike. Ministers are obliged to respond to the task force's reports, and few things are as congenial to politicians as a war on bureaucracy.
But the case should also be made that new systems and structures will cost money to implement. Universities are already short of cash. The sums needed to alleviate low pay and make renewed expansion possible will be harder to find in an era of economic slowdown and potentially massive spending on counter-terrorism. A university sector that runs itself properly is one that deserves to be funded properly.