Oxford and Cambridge universities should go private because government money is better spent on universities "that transform people's lives" rather than on "finishing schools" for the privileged.
This is the view of Brian Roper, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, one of the most socially inclusive universities. In an interview with Times Higher Education this week, he also said:
- the cost of supporting student diversity is not properly reflected in the university funding system;
- London Met will have to "rebalance" its drive to be socially inclusive by raising student entry requirements and trying to attract more "traditional" students;
- the university will seek to carry out international-standard research;
- a "hotchpotch" of initiatives from government is making it difficult for some institutions to survive;
- there are too many universities in the UK.
In a stinging attack on Oxbridge, Mr Roper said that he found recent comments on access by heads of the universities "morally offensive".
Alison Richard, vice-chancellor of Cambridge, reportedly argued that the university's core mission was not promoting social mobility, and Lord Patten, the chancellor of Oxford, said that the university had "no chance whatsoever" of meeting its access targets.
In response, Mr Roper said that Oxbridge appeared to be "actively rejecting" government policy. "My response to that is to say 'you want to be free? Get free. Don't take any state funding, just go.' That means no teaching grant, no QR (quality research) grant - that should be kept for the state universities," he said.
"The money could be better used in places which transform people's lives rather than serving as rather superior finishing schools, which is what these other places are about."
He said: "You take the money, you deliver the objectives. If you don't like the deal, don't take the money."
The fact that London Met had more black Caribbean students than the whole of the Russell Group of 20 research-led universities combined was "a scandal", he added.
London Met is in financial turmoil after the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced that it would reduce its teaching grant by £15 million due to problems with the university's data on student drop-out rates.
The university's draft strategic plan for 2009-18 talks of recruiting "a wider range of able students", including "more traditional" students, and of raising entry standards and progression rates. But Mr Roper denied that this was a move away from the university's widening participation mission.
"If the cost of supporting student diversity is not to be properly reflected in the income, it cannot be made sustainable, so we have to change the balance. We are not abandoning the historic objective, it is a rebalancing," he said.
Mr Roper said this would mean looking for different students. "Why not some students who've been to a good state school? There's plenty of them, they just pass us to go to UCL, so I'd like to catch a few of them. What about some kids from private school - that would make for some diversity, wouldn't it? I haven't found any members of the Bullingdon Club here yet, but I'm looking!"
London Met, he said, was also aiming to become the first post-1992 to be internationally recognised for the quality of its "applied research", such as work on human rights, social justice and drug intervention.
Mr Roper criticised higher education policy in England for being "a hotchpotch of initiatives", which made it difficult for some higher education institutions to survive, and said that raising the cap on student tuition fees would expose that.
Social mobility had not improved, which meant that there was as much need for widening participation work as ever, he said.
He also believed there were too many universities in Britain. "Why we need another 20, God only knows. My advice to the civic leaders of those places (hoping for a university centre) is, good luck. Don't be born poor. If you are born poor in this country, you die poor. That's what we are dealing with, but we aren't going to die because we are fighters ... We aren't going to roll over and we aren't giving up," he added.
"If this institution, with its commitment, its staff, its track record, cannot do it here, it cannot be done."
- More mergers between universities are likely, David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, warned this week. Speaking at a Universities UK conference on the threats posed by a forthcoming decline in the number of traditional undergraduates in the UK, he said: "In a commercial sector with equivalent levels of economic activity and so many providers, there would have to be many mergers over the next few decades, far more than we have seen in higher education." But he added that such decisions should not be top-down, and that the Government's role was to create conditions for the sector to find its own solutions.
DEMANDS FOR RETHINK ON RESEARCH FUNDING
Post-1992 universities are calling for research funding to be distributed "more fairly".
After the last research assessment exercise, 76 per cent of all QR (quality-related) research funding went to only 19 universities, with the money focused on research of international significance. But Million+, which represents 28 post-1992 universities, thinks at least 10 per cent of the annual QR budget should be invested in universities that carry out research of national importance.
Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, has secured an adjournment debate on research funding in the House of Commons, due to take place after Times Higher Education went to press.
Baroness Blackstone, vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, said the RAE had become "super-selective", and money for research-informed teaching should be better spread across the sector. Caroline Gipps, vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, said her university did important research and that it was "quite wrong" to receive no QR funding for it.