Fallacies, fees and PhDs

June 30, 2000

Kenneth Baker states that "universities started out as private, they should become so again - independent, free-standing institutions" ("Privateers on parade in Lords", THES, June 16).

This historical misconception is widespread and thoroughly misleading. It may be true of Oxford and Cambridge. It is emphatically not true of the universities of Scotland, the civic universities of Ireland and northern England, the national university of Wales, the University of London and most of the former colleges and polytechnics.

The misconception arises because of a strange amnesia in recent Tory thinking that seems to have infected dominant Labour views as well and, regrettably, the views of many vice-chancellors - a failure to remember that being public used to be perfectly consistent with being non-state.

All these civic institutions were local public bodies, because educational reformers of the 19th century and earlier believed that it was possible to have a public realm in civil society that was not under the control of the state, but that was also not straightforwardly part of the market.

By all means, question whether the public role of universities is best guaranteed by close state scrutiny. But do not pretend that being in the service of the public is alien to their very existence.

Lindsay Paterson

Faculty of education

University of Edinburgh

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