The future was forged in Buckingham

In exercising its autonomy, the UK’s first fully private university has blazed a trail that the rest have followed, asserts Terence Kealey

August 7, 2014

Source: Paul Bateman

Universities are for students, not for government targets. The sector focus on the NSS speaks of its convergence on the Buckingham model

Last month, the British Medical Association reported that “Aston University has announced plans for a new [private] medical school…it is the third such venture in the UK after Buckingham University and…the University of Central Lancashire.”

That report captures the pioneering nature of Buckingham, for the history of the state-backed sector over the past 40 years might be written as its perennially, and slowly, catching up with Buckingham, the UK’s first independent university.

Consider the progressive, if convulsive, introduction of undergraduate tuition fees. The first convulsion came at the start of the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s government ceased to subsidise the fees of international students, which thus rose from about £600 a year to about £4,750. Her model was Buckingham, which, having opened five years earlier, had successfully recruited international students at full fees.

The leaders of the sector funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England broke into savage print, predicting that full fees would cause the cohort of international students to evaporate. But, after a momentary falter, that cohort disproved their predictions, to grow like Topsy to become a pillar of university income.

Tony Blair’s introduction of top-up fees of £3,000 in 2004 provoked another convulsion, with the opposition parties being particularly outraged: both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats predicted that such vast charges would lay waste the universities. The model, again, was Buckingham, which was attracting students with fees of about £10,000 a year, and after a momentary falter student numbers continued to grow sector-wide.

More recently, the introduction of £9,000 fees by the former opposition parties now in the coalition government provoked yet another tsunami of outrage, but student numbers have kept rising. As have the unit of resource (the amount of money spent per student) and the staff-to-student ratio, although few Hefce-funded institutions can yet match Buckingham for those.

It’s not just in their economic model that the Hefce-funded universities have converged on Buckingham’s. Consider their ideology. In 1985 when the University of Oxford publicly rejected an honorary degree for Margaret Thatcher, it spoke for the whole Hefce-funded sector, which was incensed by the prime minister’s commitment to something called a market. But after Margaret Thatcher became the chancellor of Buckingham, and after Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did some missionary work in proselytising the selfsame market, even the Hefce-funded sector shifted its thinking and it’s now positively entrepreneurial.

The culture of the other universities is also converging on Buckingham’s. When universities were largely dependent on government money, they sought government direction. When in 1946 the government’s Barlow Committee on Scientific Manpower announced that “the State should increasingly concern itself with positive University policy”, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK) responded that they “will be glad to have a greater measure of guidance from government”.

Forty years later, on 23 March 1987, Sir George Porter, then president of the Royal Society, could still appeal in The Independent for the prime minister to lead on “determining our overall science policy…[in] universities and industry”. No wonder that as recently as 2012 a film such as I Melt the Glass with My Forehead: A Film about £9,000 Tuition Fees, How We Got Them, and What to Do about It could condemn vice-chancellors as collectively supine.

But Buckingham was created to speak truth unto power, to be independent of – and, if necessary, to oppose – all power blocs, including government and industry. So it was cheering to read in PA Consulting’s 2014 survey of vice-chancellors, Here Be Dragons – How Universities Are Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Higher Education, that “From the position of a few years ago, where government priorities and funding were the dominant factors in institutional strategies, government interventions are now regarded as the greatest constraint and threat to future success.” Vice-chancellors, it said, have “striking levels of anger and frustration with government”. That has long been Buckingham’s position.

Indeed, Buckingham has always believed that universities are for students, not for government targets. This is clear from its repeated successes in the National Student Survey. The reorientation of the whole sector around the NSS speaks yet again of its convergence on the Buckingham model.

The world’s best universities are the independent ones, led by Harvard and the Ivy League but closely challenged by Oxbridge’s uniquely autonomous culture. The UK’s universities are now increasingly independent on the Buckingham model, and I predict that within two decades they (and the similar Australian ones) will be recognised collectively as having surpassed those of the US as the world’s best.

The only fly in the current higher education sector ointment is the growing cult of managerialism. The relative decline of senates vis-à-vis councils in the Hefce-funded sector threatens the heart of academia, but as money is increasingly earned from the bottom up by the teaching and research of academics – rather than from the top down via block grants parcelled out by vice-chancellors and councils – so the power of senates will be restored.

Yet again, it will be independence on the Buckingham model that will preserve all that is best in higher education.

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Reader's comments (1)

Terence is right about the 'fly in the ointment'. He will be a hard act for anyone to follow. I hope Buckingham's Council understand that.