Leader: We want to see tangible results after the election

June 8, 2001

Dear Ministers,

As this is written, voters have yet to go to the polls. When it is read, we will know their verdict. Today and in the next few days, you will be taking up (or returning to) your portfolios. Ministers of particular concern to higher education are the secretary of state for education (with or without employment) and the minister for further and higher education; the secretary of state for trade and industry (supposing science remains with the Department of Trade and Industry) and the minister for science; increasingly important, the secretary of state for health, particularly if there is to be a university for the National Health Service; and, of course, the chancellor of the exchequer. Congratulations and welcome.

In the run-up to the election, The THES has highlighted three topics for urgent attention. Two involve money: student poverty and staff pay. The third, quality assurance, involves banging heads together. Expectations are running high. There has been much talk of investment in public services. Education has again featured large, and further and higher education have had a decent showing. The minister of state in the last government publicly regretted not addressing academic pay earlier ( THES , May 18). And the Labour manifesto promises increased investment in universities to support expansion and access while maintaining standards.

Where will the money come from? There has been much caginess about public-private partnerships, the supposed salvation of public services. Martin Taylor's research for the Institute for Public Policy Research, which is expected to flesh out this policy, is under wraps. But news of it and statements on the campaign trail were sufficient to alarm public-sector unions. Enough has been made of the possibilities of such partnerships to justify pursuing the option.

If such partnerships are to provide a route out of trouble for the public sector, where better to start than higher education? Though it is often conveniently forgotten, not least by staff unions and vice-chancellors united in their wish to force governments to fund pay increases, universities are not part of the public sector. They are just the sort of publicly supported private institution that the policy must be designed to develop. If the policy is to succeed, there must be more institutions like universities, providing services on contract to government, and more clarity about the criteria against which they are expected to manage.

Experience to date is disappointing. The disciplines of the market that drive private-sector managers are inappropriate in higher education and, if introduced, would be unpopular. Universities are increasingly expected to raise private money, but are at the same time subjected to ever more control - over what is charged for teaching; how many students are admitted; what is taught and how; what overheads are charged for research and what may be done with the results.

Universities that have threatened to exercise their freedom have been curbed. Those that looked like failing have been bailed out. Managers are encouraged to run to the government rather than slug it out in the market. Their power to go it alone has been controlled by legislation and by manifesto promises on differential fees. These are private institutions that are required to deliver public goods such as wider participation, open access and vocational preparation for work - precisely the areas where the market fails. How to manage non-profit organisations effectively will need to be addressed.

So, ministers, as you settle down to your civil service dossiers this weekend, please consider the short-term need for more cash and less control in higher education and ponder how, if public-private collaboration is to be the source of salvation, it can be made to work better in higher education.

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