Powers and pretence

October 20, 2011

Even after all this time, one still wonders whether ministers realise the risks their so-called "higher education reforms" are taking with our international reputation for quality.

"For sale: universities could be in private hands 'in six months'" (13 October) reports the government's efforts to incentivise the takeover of publicly funded universities by private companies. The article explains how the coalition means to change the law so that a private company can acquire a university or university college without having to apply separately to retain its title and degree-awarding powers, as apparently happened with the takeover of BPP College by Apollo a few years ago.

The former polytechnics had a near-30-year apprenticeship under the Council for National Academic Awards before being allowed to access the university title in 1992. The so-called "teaching-only" universities ennobled in 2004 had served a similar term. All were academic institutions with staff engaged in teaching and research, and indeed had to demonstrate the links between these activities to obtain accreditation or degree-awarding powers. By contrast, would-be private providers with no record of teaching or research have only to wave a cheque and the government comes running to do their bidding.

The UK's longest-serving prime minister, Robert Walpole, said that "every man hath his price". Instead of going through a lengthy and predetermined process of consultation, why doesn't the government simply auction off degree-awarding powers and university titles to the highest bidder and be done with it?

Roger Brown, Professor of higher education policy, Liverpool Hope University

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