Further control from Whitehall must be resisted

June 18, 1999

Impatience from the Public Accounts Committee over the Further Education Funding Council's slowness in getting to grips with college management failures is understandable. So is similar impatience with regard to higher education. Most backbench MPs have colleges and many have universities on their patch. They also have little enough serious work to do. The temptation to demand that osomething must be donei each time failures are uncovered is all but irresistible. And the case sounds good: the sums of public money now going into further and higher education are huge. But the demand for control is now getting out of hand. The latest Treasury-driven plans for universities look excessively intrusive (page 1).

Arguably a number of the failures deplored by the National Audit Office/PAC result from too much central prescription. Centralised funding formulae tempted colleges into inappropriate franchising and assessment regimes that passed too many students. Overseas ventures of dubious quality were driven by a desire to escape the financial squeeze caused by rigid control of income from teaching British students.

In further education the FEFC is expecting to emerge from the government's post-16 review with increased powers of intervention. Staff in Scottish colleges will hardly see the NAO's detailed prescription for efficiency (page 4) as conducive to improvement. In higher education the number of strings attached to public funds grows daily and now it seems the use of private funds is also to be monitored.

Higher education funding councils have till now rightly resisted demands for closer involvement in running institutions. Rightly because, as John Lauwerys says in his letter (page 17), central intervention is a bad idea not justified by such failures as there have been. It destroys diversity and stunts experiment. It also puts at risk a vital source of strength in a free society - questioning of received wisdom. Whatever the temptation, MPs would be better occupied calling an increasingly intrusive executive to account - why should the man in Whitehall know best? - than egging it on to yet closer control.

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