A chance to break free of administrative and regulatory tyranny

The new funding regime may allow universities, led by a British 'Ivy League', to refocus on their missions, argues Peter Oppenheimer

January 6, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

To what extent might the new student tuition fees regime initiate an era of greater professional autonomy and self-management for academics, and help universities detach themselves from agendas imposed on them by others?

The distortions caused by the government monopoly on funding over the past half-century are self-evident. In what looks like classic disorientation technique, universities were ordered to promote "wider access" while simultaneously being penalised for exceeding arbitrary limits on their home and European Union undergraduate numbers. Teaching was downgraded relative to research, even though much research - especially in the social sciences and the humanities - has social value only as an auxiliary to teaching. Here at least, the student voice should help to restore traditional priorities.

With more competition among universities both for good students and for philanthropic funding, the regulatory role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and related bodies will lose much of its justification. This point escaped Lord Browne of Madingley in his review of the sector's funding. Despite proclaiming that "competition will drive up quality", he also proposed an amalgam of existing regulators into an all-embracing Higher Education Council. Hefce then lost no time in promising an intensification of regulatory activity - including a new "quality audit" - to keep itself in business.

A breakthrough could come from privatisation of a group of top universities into a UK "Ivy League". The proposal has been floated from time to time - most recently by Sir Roy Anderson, rector of Imperial College London in 2009 - but in changed financial circumstances, it deserves renewed consideration.

The universities of Cambridge and Oxford would participate, together with (realistically) a small number of others. They would opt out of all Hefce funding and thereby escape the detailed absurdities of Hefce regulation. The effect would gradually percolate through the rest of higher education, because regulatory differences between one university and another can be only a matter of degree (pun intended). The same applies to philanthropic funding, where an Ivy League would gradually set new standards and expectations (now that's "competition driving up quality").

Of more immediate impact, with opting-out institutions accounting for more than 10 per cent of total Hefce grant allocations, pressures on the rest of the sector would be alleviated and the government's retrenchment objectives would be facilitated. The latter is also one reason why research funding through the research councils will continue to flow to those opting out.

In any case, under the new funding arrangements, universities generally will need to convince private donors by reducing their cost base, most especially administration. University managers seem to have difficulty grasping that their administrative indulgence is no more sacrosanct than that of Shell, the BBC or a local authority.

True, UK universities do need a bigger administrative machine today than they did 30 years ago. The reasons include a more complex legal framework and laborious application procedures for research grants, as well as advancement of fundraising and alumni relations.

The problem is not the principle but the extent. The University of Oxford provides a good illustrative example. Justified and consensus-based growth of its central administration ceased at the end of the 1990s. Its staff then totalled 612, having risen roughly threefold in the previous 15 years. Subsequent remorseless expansion, by a further 75 per cent to about 1,100, has been wholly unwarranted, with scores of staff employed inefficiently or superfluously. The annual cost of this post-1999 mushroom is about £20 million, or £1,000 in fees for every current Oxford student. Actually, insistence on funding the extra administrators was what drove a one-third increase in student numbers over this decade, made up mostly by full-fee-paying postgraduate and international students.

Pruning the central administration will certainly help universities refocus on their original mission. It is an important step towards restoring and maintaining the prin- ciple that all student admission, including postgraduate, be determined solely by academic merit, and not by contribution to cash flow. Other steps can follow, including reductions in academic staff and cross-subsidisation for needy students, both from the university's research income and from those whose families can afford fees substantially above the level now approved by the government.

These may all seem like radical steps, but it is important to recognise that in the new funding landscape, there are radical opportunities as well. This is our chance for universities to set their own agendas.

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