Leader: Pack mentality is bad for business

February 27, 2004

PA Consulting's survey of vice-chancellors is lavishly illustrated with action shots of big game, ramming home the theme of the survival of the fittest. On the evidence of the report, however, universities are more wildebeest than lion: running with the pack, aware of a theoretical danger but apparently oblivious to individual and potentially fatal threat.

Most of the vice-chancellors responding to the survey (nearly half) dislike the government's strategy for higher education and want more freedom to manage. But, although concerned about the continued concentration of research funding, they expect central direction to damage someone else.

They do not anticipate mergers or closures, even of individual sites. And, while increased competition for undergraduates may cause difficulty, this can be overcome by recruiting more postgraduates and overseas students.

Without knowing which vice-chancellors took part in the study, it is impossible to judge the level of realism in their responses. But it is alarming that even some of the universities most involved in widening participation are contemplating this escape route because they do not regard the recruitment of non-traditional students as "good business". They are deluding themselves and inviting further intervention if they think that at some future date they will be able to change their image overnight and ape those that are moving in this direction.

Higher education after the introduction of top-up fees will be more diverse, not less, and universities that do not know their market will be in jeopardy. Widening participation may be expensive but, where the bulk of funding still comes from the state, it is not an optional extra. The Office for Fair Access will see to that. But there is a deeper social imperative that goes to the heart of universities' missions. If they succumb to another bout of academic drift, they will lose the support of the public - and of the politicians who control the purse strings.

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