Business could be just what we need to cut through the red tape

Jon F. Baldwin argues that incorporating universities into BIS may lead to a recognition of the real export value of the sector

August 27, 2009

James Fryer
Credit: James Fryer

I am increasingly puzzled by what is happening to UK higher education; at what we seem willing to countenance; at what we are doing to ourselves.

I have speculated before that we are over-regulated, unnecessarily burdened and, perhaps worse, that we are complicit in the creation of that burden and regulation. When the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) was created, I worried that a department with "universities" in its title might actually do us damage. A small department with an excessive number of ministers might lead to unwanted attention.

The results of that DIUS era of intense focus are yet to hit us. Consider the agenda that emerged from the DIUS Select Committee: more scrutiny and more requests for justification.

Now, in the wake of the creation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), commentators are worrying about a lack of visibility for the sector. But there is no need to be concerned.

In fact, interest in the business benefits of universities may actually help protect us from one of the more ludicrous and heavy-handed packages of regulation that risks creating havoc in international student recruitment. International students have become the target of both new and "reconditioned" red tape that is being reeled out as part of an attempt to bolster national security.

Those students from overseas who are already here will face a new system in which we have to record their compliance with a number of points of contact. These new regulations may be aimed at rooting out so-called "bogus" students or determined terrorists trying to sneak into the UK, but all they are likely to produce is a list of some of the UK's most motivated students.

That has been a significant irritation, albeit one we have found a way of working with. However, it was just a precursor to the real regulatory blow. Universities had accepted the rationale behind the introduction of a points-based immigration system and realised it would make those immigration processes more challenging than before, but we have been astonished at the ferocity with which this has been introduced and enforced.

UK visa officials appear to have replaced red tape with red barbed wire, and Universities UK says we are now "in serious danger of sending out a message that the UK does not welcome international students". We can only hope that now that universities are part of a business-focused department, that department will recognise that it is, effectively, putting at risk a UK export business worth £8.5 billion and will act quickly to do something about it.

Being part of BIS may also, at long last, bring some real recognition of universities' achievements as independent organisations: successful organisations that should be left to determine their own destiny as much as possible.

Direct funding from the Government as a proportion of many individual universities' turnover is declining. Take my own university, Warwick: in 2008-09, 24 per cent of our income came directly from the Government. The rest we earned ourselves.

Of course universities should be granted autonomy, both because they are successful, and because that autonomy is, in itself, central to a university's success. Independence is often celebrated by government as key to the relative success of UK higher education, and as a reason for our creditable positioning in international league tables.

These seem to be issues that get to the heart of what the university is, or should be - not the agent of someone but rather (paradoxically) the agent of everyone: places where inquiry is routine, reflection the norm and where free spirits can flourish.

There must be accountability, but sensible accountability. This should not be a system that endeavours to second-guess the sector as if it is somehow not trying to do its best, but rather a system that recognises a jewel in the UK's crown, a sector that is truly world class, a sector that is among the most responsive of all sectors in the UK.

Am I starry-eyed? Maybe. But the point is this: unless those who lead the sector are prepared to engage in this debate with representatives of political parties, then, starry-eyed or not, there is only one way to go.

Given the evidence, which points to a strong, competitive sector, one has to wonder why on earth universities are so defensive, and why on earth we do not recognise and actively promote a system that is world class.

Consider, too, our social and civil responsibility as places of reflection, contemplation and learning and, in that context, we should ask ourselves what types of graduates we want to turn out. Do we want them to be followers, who are dependent and narrow, or leaders, who are creative and independent? I know which I'd choose.

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