As Britain’s first private university when it received its royal charter in 1983, the University of Buckingham has always generated strong feelings.
It was run from 2001 until recently by Terence Kealey, a passionate believer in free markets whose book on The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, he once told Times Higher Education,“stated quite categorically that governments should not fund science or higher education”.
The new vice-chancellor, Sir Anthony Seldon, took over in September after close to a decade as master of Wellington College. So what are his values and plans for the controversial institution?
“I’m not a free-market ideologue,” he says, “though I believe that Britain is much the stronger for an independent sector in education…Those who are independent should not mimic what the state-funded institutions are doing but use their freedoms to offer alternatives.”
Seldon has written or edited about 40 books, many on recent prime ministers, and believes that those running universities should “carry on offering academic leadership in their disciplines”. This is reflected in his vision of Buckingham as a prestigious not-for-profit university, strong in research and focusing on “programmes which are deeply academic, not quick degrees in accountancy”.
He also wants it to be a place that dares to “look at and challenge orthodoxy. That’s a passion of mine, because government, the London and academic establishments have orthodoxies that need to be probed.”
While happy to welcome thinkers of all political stripes, Seldon acknowledges that “our particular contribution is more likely to be in the free-market, libertarian, liberal traditions in which this university was founded than in, say, the study of Marxism or central control systems. I’m very open to having outstanding academics with those interests, but the centre of gravity is more likely to be on the liberal side.”
Plans to grow
Although it is still early days and Seldon is not putting forward detailed proposals for the university’s future until next March, he is definitely keen to expand the university: “Two thousand students is not big enough. I’d like to see us increase to 5,000 on different campuses within 10 years.”
He points to scope for growth in medicine – Buckingham launched the UK’s first private medical school this year – with the development of a “medical hub” that could bring in disciplines such as dentistry.
Seldon also likes the idea of a centre for liberal economics to examine how markets work and perhaps a Thatcher School of Government, although “that wouldn’t be a right-wing school of government any more than the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard is a centre for Kennedyesque thinking”. It was recently announced that the long-mooted Margaret Thatcher Centre, incorporating a museum, library and research facilities, is going to be housed at Buckingham.
As “a deep internationalist” who was “a key champion of the International Baccalaureate” while at Wellington, Seldon envisages “an IB-style liberal arts degree” that would be validated by the organisation. He has also brought with him from Wellington an interest in well-being, creativity and leadership. A Mindfulness in Medicine conference is planned for early next year and an MA in positive psychology may be a longer-term option.
He stresses that he has “a huge admiration for the university sector – there’s a great deal about it that is utterly remarkable and world-class”, yet there are two areas in which Seldon has already voiced strong criticisms and hopes that he “now has a platform where people may be more willing to listen”.
On the question of teaching quality, Seldon believes that universities can learn much from schools about “the science of teaching”, instead of “just assuming that because you are outstanding in your subject you can convey it to students”.
The other issue that worries him is pastoral care. “As a leader of a university,” he suggests, “you are negligent if you are not taking the mental health of your students and staff very seriously.” Furthermore, students away from home for the first time often need far more “care and thought and adult supervision” than is currently on offer.
In both these areas, Seldon sees himself as something of a whistle-blower. He found it “utterly disgraceful” when he was “trashed by universities” for speaking out about the prevalence of drinking cultures.
As a further means of influencing the rest of the sector, he is planning a Higher Education Festival, similar to one he ran at Wellington, which he claims is “now the biggest event on the schools calendar, with 350 speakers and thousands of delegates last year…Higher education will change massively over the next 10 years and the festival will be in the vanguard of discussions about those changes.”