Two brains, both wrong

March 8, 2012

David Willetts disagrees with Stefan Collini that the government lacks an understanding of the public value of the university ("A mistaken conception that the university system is under attack", 1 March). He gives as evidence the fact that a substantial level of taxpayer support for teaching will continue.

With respect, minister, this is being "economical with the truth". In considering the public benefits of a university system, it is not only the level of state funding that needs to be considered but also the route by which it reaches institutions. It is clear to those who have studied such systems that because of the substantial information problems inherent in the notion of a higher education "market", provision determined chiefly by the wishes of large numbers of students is unlikely to meet their long-term needs, or society's as a whole, as effectively as where resource allocation is decided by a mixture of government and government agencies, institutions and external stakeholders such as students, employers and professional bodies (broadly speaking, the existing system). The government indeed accepts this in respect of certain subjects and categories of provision where some direct grants will continue.

The shift to what is effectively a voucher system, where most state support for teaching goes through support for the student fee, represents a decisive turn away from the notion of higher education as fulfilling wider social purposes towards it being a private good. Collini is right, and no amount of ministerial weasel words can disguise it.

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

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