Freedom: just another word for bigger profits (1 of 2)

October 25, 2012

Terence Kealey deserves thanks for explicating a key point on which ministers prefer to maintain silence: namely, that the argument for privatising the UK's universities rests empirically on the performance of the top US private universities ("Declaration of independence", 11 October). His candour is all the more precious for revealing so clearly how this argument, thinly disguised as defence of intellectual autonomy, is actually propelled by institutional self-interest.

The basic argument is familiar. Since he who pays the piper calls the tune, only complete financial independence guarantees intellectual independence.

The problem is that the great private US universities are not financially independent. The vast bulk of their funding for research, on which their fame principally rests, comes from public sources; and even their high tuition fees are made possible by government-backed student grants and loans.

Far from criticising this reliance on state funding, Kealey proposes not only to emulate it but to surpass it. Private universities, he argues, should "be free to cherry-pick quality-related (QR) research money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England". In other words, the University of Buckingham should have full access to public research funding, not only for individual project grants (like Ivy League universities) but also for institutional block grants from Hefce. Why taking the king's shilling for teaching erodes intellectual integrity yet doing the same for research represents a victory for independence is something he fails to explain.

This is partly because Kealey's primary argument is not about intellectual freedom at all: it is about the freedom to maximise income. Universities, he argues, " freed to charge the fees the market will bear" without "any of the subjections to agencies such as the Office for Fair Access". In other words, the UK's elite universities should outdo their US competitors in selling their wares to the highest bidder (which the Ivy League does not do) and in offering preferential access to the children of generous alumni (which it does). Doing so might make the richest few UK universities even richer, but would this be a good thing for the UK university system generally, and for UK society as a whole? Is what is best for Oxbridge also best for Britain?

Recent US experience suggests otherwise. Over the past decade, books depicting the deepening malaise of the US university system have flooded from US university presses at an unreadable rate, rapidly rendering unqualified admiration for the American way in higher education obsolete. The UK may need a proper debate to give this issue an overdue airing but before publishing further contributions to it, Kealey needs to catch up with his reading.

Howard Hotson, Professor of early modern intellectual history, University of Oxford

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