Leader: Tips from abroad as closures bite

January 21, 2005

Academics in continental Europe are no doubt following the row about course closures in the UK and the debate about how to protect courses of national importance with a mix of curiosity and foreboding.

In Italy, academics are insulated against closures by life-long contracts - although they face new measures of "teaching productivity", while in Russia, the Ministry of Education retains a rigid control of university courses.

If France's universities appear to have greater autonomy, the state retains the right of approval over courses and strictly controls "regulated studies" in subjects such as medicine.

At present, the UK is caught at a decision point somewhere between the interventionist models of Europe and the free-marketeering of higher education in the US.

While declaring that the state should have a say in subjects of strategic importance, ministers are wary of intervention that would be seen as undermining university autonomy.

The hint from Kim Howells, the Higher Education Minister, at the end of last year was that the Government favours a regional solution, asking quangos to work - in concert with central government - to oversee departmental mergers or a managed retreat of provision in their areas.

This would echo moves in Germany, where some regional authorities are weighing up whether merging departments would "rationalise" provision. One striking difference is that the German regional bodies, unlike their English counterparts, already provide 90 per cent of universities'

funding.

It is also clear that the machinery of English regional government - development agencies and shadow assemblies - has proved more effective in some parts than others and has been more engaged with the issues of planning, transport and economic development than higher education.

Nevertheless, ministers are biding their time waiting for advice from the Higher Education Funding Council for England before deciding what form their attempt to influence the market will take.

But the difficulty is in the detail: what makes one subject nationally important and another not? Can one department receive additional help from the state or region without compromising departments at neighbouring institutions?

To win the confidence of the sector, transparency will be essential, but consensus may prove elusive.

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