Letter: Vacillating v-cs (2)

March 23, 2001

It beggars belief to read that once again the vice-chancellors have ducked their responsibility to champion the cause of the universities and not least the need for a better basis of funding. Having set up yet another study, they have now set aside all four of Sir William Taylor's proposals and decided to do nothing.

How can they sit on their hands in this way? Who else is to promote the wellbeing of the universities if not them? Sir Howard Newby asks the question: "What is the point of the universities deciding anything when the government might set it aside?" This is defeatism of a high order.

Not long ago, British universities were independent bodies deciding their own fate, setting their own targets and salaries. Now, apparently, we are just helots. Is it possible to get any lower than this?

The way out of this parlous state is clear and always has been. It is for the universities to reclaim themselves from government diktat, to stand up and declare their worth and their needs. If they are ever again to pay salaries likely to attract the best, they must have the freedom to do so. To be worthy of that freedom, they need to own and run their businesses as businesses. They, their students, industry and government need to know the economic cost of producing graduates. They must then have the courage to defend those figures and charge customers accordingly.

This issue cannot be ducked again. Ultimately these economic costs must be reflected in the fees to be charged to students and to government. Government's only role would be to subsidise the individual student fee. And woe betide them if they short-changed that political responsibility.

It is evident that treading on the vice-chancellors is no longer a problem. But treading on a million students is a serious matter. Why not harness the student body to the cause of better-funded universities? After all, it is their future that is at stake.

That was, of course, one of Sir William's options.

Graham Hills
Principal and vice-chancellor University of Strathclyde, 1980-1992

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