Regional consortia could offer stability to institutions that are not wannabe Oxbridges. But John Ashworth isn't holding his breath.
Twenty years ago the then University Grants Committee imposed a wide range of cuts in grant-in-aid to institutions (from 6 per cent for York to 44 per cent for Salford) in the then much smaller university system.
This seemed to some of us a clear signal to try to devise a new kind of institution. At Salford, we felt that we had the foundations for such an attempt in our long record of close involvement with the local community, particularly local manufacturing industry, and pioneering experience of introducing teaching company and sandwich degree schemes.
We set about trying to define what that new kind of institution could be and during an intensive institution-wide debate did so. In the words of the 1982 "aims and objectives": "The university's teaching is intended to result in graduates with the capacity to identify, formulate and then to solve problems and to make, design, organise, produce or construct useful objects and services (and) the capacity to cooperate with others, to value communal endeavour and achievement as well as competition. It is the university's intention that these problem-solving and organising skills should be the particular qualities of its graduates."
We also redefined "research" in terms that encouraged members of staff "to respond to the needs of industry and commerce for innovatory products and services" and to reward "technology transfer". To put those aims and objectives into concrete terms, we set up what is still a unique institution - the Campaign for the University of Salford, or Campus, which celebrates its 20th birthday on July 23.
Campus is Salford's corporate and commercial supporters' club. A self-financing charitable trust, it exists to link members (some 150, mainly local organisations) with the university to mutual benefit. In the 1980s it was the job of Campus to help define those "needs" and "problems" the university was setting out to satisfy and it did a very good job.
Unfortunately, the "needs" and "problems" identified did not often coincide with those that were given financial support from the alphabet soup of organisations that succeeded the UGC. All the rhetoric from ministers supported differentiation of mission for university institutions and often specifically encouraged local involvement, but the funding did not follow the rhetoric.
This left the university and Campus with a real problem. Did they follow the local/regional needs as they perceived them or did they follow the financial signals sent out by the bureaucrats of central government?
In the 1980s we tried to do both, using Campus funds and the profits of our wholly owned commercial companies to fund our own priorities, but also, like everyone else, chasing every which "special programme" and "initiative" dreamed up in the corridors of power in Whitehall and Bristol. Over the short term this is probably inevitable, but over the long term nothing can be more demoralising. This was especially so since Salford was not alone. Other institutions tried to explore their own version of the "Salford model" but met the same fate. All attempts to set up "mission-dependent" funding regimes failed and with them attempts to develop effective models of university institutions different from the Oxbridge one that the UGC had in 1981. It was becoming clear by the 1990s that the 1981 "cuts" were not the signal that I, at least, had hoped for. We still have only one socially and politically acceptable model for a university with league tables to match.
This failure is not unique. It is one of a series that has bedevilled attempts to modernise the British state. The tension between central and regional governments has been with us since attempts in the 1970s to reform local government finance broke down. The current government has been right to respond to the demands for more regional autonomy. The rhetoric has been exemplary. But its behaviour in Wales and London has been even more cack-handed and counterproductive than has the Higher Education Funding Council for England in trying to respond to the same perceived need for regionally and/or institutionally based differentiation of funding policies within England.
There has been much talk of setting up "regional consortia" of institutions. This could be just the latest rhetorical smokescreen put up to mollify those vice-chancellors who say "we cannot go on like this". Or, and here is the hope that springs eternal, it could be the chance for the new head of Hefce to do what many have been advocating since the Duke of Devonshire's committee of inquiry reported 120 years ago and what his predecessors so conspicuously failed to do 20 years ago: to give credibility and funding stability to university institutions that do not aspire to be a version of Oxbridge.
John Ashworth was vice-chancellor of Salford University from 1981-90.