Beggaring belief

April 10, 2008

So now Universities Secretary John Denham wants us to recreate 19th-century levels of educational philanthropy and civic engagement by asking the taxpayer to stump up £200 million to match alumni and charitable donations. This from a minister who claims he can no longer justify half that amount a year to fund tens of thousands of second-chance, mostly part-time adult learners, with the result that these ELQ (equivalent or lower qualifications) students - who are, by definition, alumni - are told they are no longer welcome in our universities, and providers that have done more than anyone else to deliver the civic engagement of their universities are closing down.

Rightly keen to maximise their income, vice-chancellors are unlikely to cavil at the further irony that that the very ministers who exhort universities to behave like businesses and treat our students as customers now ask us to be as unbusinesslike as possible by holding out the begging bowl.

In the real world, businesses such as Marks & Spencer would be laughed off the high street if they asked customers for charitable donations to meet shareholders' targets. Fortunately, as the select committee inquiry into ELQs has found, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills policy is unconstrained by the limited imaginations to be found in the real world.

After all, M&S hasn't even worked out that it makes brilliant business sense to charge returning customers - loyal alumni every one of them - three times the prices they paid the first time they walked in the store.

Ian Ground, Centre for Lifelong Learning University of Sunderland.

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