A reason to play to strengths

August 18, 2000

Diversity will thrive if universities are given the money to do what they are best at, argue Richard Brown and Gareth Williams

The Higher Education Funding Council for England admitted in a recent policy statement, Diversity in Higher Education: "Diversity is widely agreed to be a desirable feature of higher education. But some have argued that diversity... is under threat and that more should be done to sustain and promote it."

Hefce is in danger of saying that everything in the garden is lovely. Others would suggest that funding methodologies distort institutions' missions and threaten diversity.

Under present arrangements, universities compete for public and private funds. The government limits the number of students each institution is allowed to recruit, encourages recruitment in certain disciplines (eg engineering) and sets a maximum fee that a university or college is allowed to charge its undergraduate students.

This quasi-market approach has brought many benefits. Higher education of acceptable quality at modest cost provides exceptionally good value. Universities with different profiles do coexist, subject to certain constraints.

However, there are also disadvantages. Institutional policies are increasingly in danger of being finance-driven. In a period of financial stringency, universities and colleges are inevitably tempted to seek funds from all available sources. Thus the research assessment exercise, which rewards success in academic disciplinary research of a particular kind, encourages non-research focused departments to undertake the type of research that the RAE reviews and rewards.

If the funding councils are to achieve the government's wider objectives - to get more individuals from non-traditional backgrounds into higher education and encourage institutions to reach out to local communities and add value to local businesses - greater parity of esteem between different missions is needed. Each institution should be encouraged to pursue the mission for which it is best fitted.

Funding schemes are in operation in France and in Australia where governments agree medium-term "contracts" with individual universities based on agreed strategies, which are then monitored. Under a similar approach in the UK, each university and college would send the funding council its five-year business plan articulating its mission and how it would be achieved.

The plan would replace ad hoc responses and bids for specific initiative funding. It would be evaluated by the funding council to assess whether the mission was reasonable for the institution, whether it accorded with government policies and whether it was achievable. Institutions would then be funded via a block grant. They would have a real incentive to define and pursue their own distinct mission, focus on what they were good at and be recognised and rewarded accordingly.

In today's competitive climate, where funding pressures and the prospect of differential fees threaten to heighten competition, there is an urgent need to encourage institutions to identify and play to their strengths. Funding by mission should encourage greater institutional autonomy, a focus on excellence in all its various forms, hence greater diversity, parity of esteem and improvements in cost effective delivery.

In its recent science and innovation paper, Excellence and Opportunity, the government says: "We want to see a diversity of excellence in universities, with universities adopting a variety of missions building on their strengths". We agree.

Richard Brown is chief executive of the Council for Industry in Higher Education. Gareth Williams is head of the centre for higher education studies at the Institute of Education, London.

* Should universities be funded by mission?

Email soapbox@thes.co.uk

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