Half-Bak(er)ed plan better than no mention at all

October 6, 2000

It is a bit rich for the Conservative Party to bewail universities' lack of freedom. Until 1983 there was no legislation covering universities as a group. Polytechnics and colleges were controlled by local authorities, but universities were largely a law unto themselves, spending their money from the University Grants Committee as they saw fit.

The first foot in the door came with the requirement that universities prevent student unions from running "no platform" policies: the result of students roughing up and badly frightening the then secretary of state, Keith Joseph. But the real intrusion began with Kenneth Baker in 1986. In exchange for a big increase in funding, the UGC and the committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals signed up for a programme of selectivity in research; monitoring of teaching; staff development, training and appraisal; performance indicators; streamlined management systems; and agreement to discuss abolishing tenure. Since then, legislation has progressively tightened the government's grip on old universities and moved new ones from local to central control.

The Conservatives may, of course, have undergone some Damascene conversion. But those with long memories, even if they like the rhetoric of freedom, will be sceptical. There is as yet little detail as to how the liberation of universities might proceed. How generous will the endowments be, and what powers would remain with the government? The intention is clearly to continue to control fees.

What is interesting is that at long last higher education is a serious political issue. And not just here. It has been one of the major debating points in the US presidential election. Participation has now reached levels where the cost, quality and accessibility of universities matter to many voters. The Conservatives' plans may look half-baked but the questions they have raised about the role and status of universities may turn up real political divisions.

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