Free us from the public sector

November 8, 2002

Any changes in fees should be part of a general 'deregulation' of the university sector, argues Peter Knight.

More drivel has been talked on the subject of top-up fees over the past few weeks on behalf of some so-called elite institutions than anyone can stomach. The debate has been captured by a few institutions in that well-known tontine, the Russell Group, which have been trying to outbid one another in an unseemly scramble to see who can come up with the most overstated demand for private fees. The only success has been in feeding individual egos.

The expression "top-up fees" is taken to mean allowing a few research-based universities to charge unjustifiable private fees. I do not agree with the contention that a few institutions must have that level of income to prosper, nor do I agree that admitting only the rich is a prerequisite for "world-class" status. However, I strongly support any move by the government to "deregulate" universities and so allow us to set a fee (higher or lower than the present figure) that is appropriate to our local circumstances.

Over the past decade, universities have drifted - through a lethal combination of inertia and incompetent leadership - to a position where we are perceived as an integral part of the public sector. It is difficult to imagine a greater threat to the traditional view of academic freedom than the insidious absorption into the workings of the state that characterises our current position. Government interference and the bureaucracy that accompanies receipt of public funds have developed to the point where they strangle the competitiveness and innovation that are the hallmarks of a successful university.

At the first sign of any managerial difficulty, vice-chancellors' instinctive action is to run cap in hand to the government expecting to be bailed out. The strategy works rather well. Over the years, money has been extracted from the Treasury for various initiatives, leaving vice-chancellors with the challenging task of finding yet another area where we can demonstrate our collective incompetence so as to justify another dollop of public funds.

The recent bid from Universities UK for more than £9 billion over the next three years to address the problem of "under-funding" was charitably described by higher education minister Margaret Hodge as "cloud-cuckoo land". She was right! There is not a vice-chancellor on the planet who believes there was ever the remotest chance of getting anything approaching that sum, but in the game of public-sector financing the unspoken rules do not allow us the luxury of the intellectual honesty to admit it.

The real problem that has led to top-up fee proposals is that it has, at long last, been realised that as long as the universities are seen as part of the public sector they will always by underfunded. There will never be enough public money.

With the forthcoming ten-year review, there is an opportunity for the universities to regain their soul. We must have the collective courage to see ourselves as private, free-standing, autonomous, not-for-profit, charitable institutions that are independent of the state.

If we could recapture that freedom that comes with being "private sector" then it is absolutely inevitable, and indeed desirable, that we should be able to determine our own fees. There is almost no other commodity that is available in society where the price is so completely separated from the cost of provision and the demand. It cannot be right to maintain the present rigid and unsatisfactory system.

I support the deregulation of fees, but in the context of a radical and bold deregulation of the university sector as a whole. If the universities are really set free of the constraints that go with our "public-sector" image, there is, without doubt, more than enough energy, initiative and opportunity for us all to become, in accordance with our own missions, "world-class" institutions.

Peter Knight is vice-chancellor of the University of Central England.


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