Financial freedom will cost

July 5, 2002

If universities gain independence, it will be the poor who lose out, argues Gill Evans

The Russell Group has been making play with the idea of becoming independent of state control for some time. Now the business schools are at it, crying "independence" and wanting to go it alone. This raises an important question about the difference between independence and autonomy.

The autonomy of universities has almost become a legal fiction. It has been steadily eroded since the 19th century in a series of acts of Parliament - 1877, 1923, 1988, 1992. The state has taken control of the "public function" of the provision of education and research. It has removed the tenure of academics - with a small sop to the protection of their freedom in the form of the academic freedom of speech clause (section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988). It has even given itself room to interfere in areas of academic activity with "conditions of grant" powers for the secretary of state in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act to take the money back if she does not like the way it is spent.

So what are these beefy chaps suggesting when they say they want to be independent? What are they brandishing by way of a lever to get what they want?

Inseparable from the planting of those flags of independence on individual campus territories are questions of funding. You will not be around long if you run out of money, even if you are quite a big and old university with some pretty sizeable endowments. Those tend to come fenced about with trusts and trustees and their funds cannot be used with the freedom of the petty-cash tin.

And how will you be able to avoid penury if you turn your back on state funding to rely on fickle industrial sponsorship and alumnus loyalty to keep you going? Industries want to buy you. Alumni? As an alumnus of five UK universities, not to mention the ones where I have been an employee or an "external" PhD supervisor, I am not unaccustomed to the begging phone call. A student, unlawfully given my home phone number by the university, rings me "on behalf of the vice-chancellor" (Oh yeah, how gullible do you think I am?) to solicit my signature to a direct debit or some such to support the university of the future out of my rather small salary of the present. Is it seriously to be imagined that a university can be kept steadily in funds by such methods?

Could the money come in sufficient quantities from the students? The vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge had himself photographed by the university press office last year, accepting a petition from the students against top-up fees. Other vice-chancellors may have seized such photo opportunities too. Those pictures may come back to haunt them if, in the future, they find themselves relying on the enhanced subscriptions of their students.

Are universities running tight ships with the money they have? There are certainly questions to be asked about the efficiency with which some universities deploy those financial resources they do command. Moves away from standard salary spines to secret extras for the vice-chancellor's favourites and a total failure to join up what is in the budget with the expenditure are recipes for financial meltdown.

Cassandra at it again, I hear some of you muttering. I am against these break-away bids, but not because I want to see continuing state control of activities that are ultimately good only if they involve the free pursuit of truth and see the learning of the past as continuous with the learning of the present. I am against them because they will further divide the haves from the have-nots, deny students a real choice of university unless their parents are willing and able to pay, and encourage some rather arrogant he-man universities to continue to think a little too well of themselves.

Gill Evans is a lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge and public policy secretary for the Council for Academic Freedom and Standards.

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