Are universities to go the way of shipbuilding?

April 16, 1999

A dismal scene: at one end of post-compulsory education in Britain are further education colleges that are mismanaged, in deficit, even corrupt. At the other are prestige institutions too broke to keep up with American competitors, their talented staff too busy with bureaucracy to concentrate on their scholarly work, according to David Cannadine (page 18). Are we, he asks in the week the Govan shipyard went up for sale, to see this country's universities go the way of its shipbuilding industry?

The colleges will be sorted out because the political will exists. The government is rightly giving the sector priority. Halton, Bilston and perhaps others will be made examples of. In further education, proximity to other institutions usually means staff and students can be rescued. If funders show they are not scared of closures, minds will be concentrated wonderfully. With new money flowing in, further education has an exciting future and a real chance to open up opportunities for the population generally.

As for the universities, we have an increasingly closely planned and monitored system. University staff may gnash their teeth at the box-ticking and form-filling involved but at least the figures show a system that is increasingly cost effective. It is still relatively popular despite fees and lack of grants. There is - in some areas - broad participation, and more of the population are getting useful qualifications. Despite staff understandably feeling exhausted and exploited, average effectiveness is probably rising.

The intractable problem is the narrow one Professor Cannadine has identified: how to keep the top tier of universities internationally competitive. It is intractable because neither academics nor politicians have the stomach for radical change. The government dares not let go the reins and see a small group of universities storm off into a new, private sector, and their priorities (and supporters) would not allow taxpayers' money to be used to favour an elite. The institutions themselves have neither the will nor the power to seize control.

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