Private problems

January 13, 2011

It is astonishing how often otherwise well-informed commentators stumble over parallels between US and UK higher education.

In "A chance to break free of administrative and regulatory tyranny" (6 January), Peter Oppenheimer argues that UK higher education as a whole would benefit from a privatised Ivy League equivalent, enabling universities to "refocus on their missions" and reduce the number of administrators. Unfortunately, he is wrong on all counts.

The fact that many of the leading US universities are private - and thus spared the public accountability that keeps public colleges' costs under some sort of control - is one of the principal reasons for the "academic arms race" that has so disfigured US higher education. It has also contributed to the pressures for homogeneity, as each institution seeks to emulate more prestigious peers rather than concentrate on meeting student needs. Finally, it leads to more rather than fewer administrators: on one count, only 17 per cent of Harvard University's employees are what we would call "front-line staff".

What is needed in both countries is an integrated system where both prices/costs and institutional ambitions are kept under some sort of control in the public interest. Privatisation is precisely the wrong way to achieve this.

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

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