Harvard funding model 'is not for UK'

May 9, 2003

Academics, medics, MPs and London's mayor attack the white paper's vision

Endowments can never free the government from funding higher education, Cambridge University says in its response to the white paper on higher education.

Cambridge has more than £2 billion in endowments but is critical of the government's vision of universities becoming self-funding on the Harvard or Yale universities model - they have endowments of $18 billion (£11 billion) and $11 billion respectively.

The university's submission, coordinated by its council, warns the government to be realistic. It says: "Cambridge has one of the largest UK endowments, but at the university level it only provides around 10 per cent of our annual income. Building significant endowments is important, but it cannot relieve government of making sensible and effective arrangements for investment in higher education by taxpayers in general and students (and their parents) in particular."

The response welcomes the government task force set up to examine ways to remove barriers to fund-raising and suggests that it look to the successful development offices already operating in UK higher education as well as the US.

Cambridge's overall response to the white paper is frosty. Its relations with the government are strained, with ministers pressuring top-level management to reform the institution's governance structures. Academics threw out plans for change earlier this year.

A mounting deficit, difficulties with a new computer system and disappointment with the outcome of the Cambridge-MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Institute have been noted in Whitehall. Cambridge also failed to meet access targets.

It defended its widening participation programme, deflecting suggestions that the college-based admissions system was unfair. The white paper says Oxford and Cambridge have to recognise that the collegiate admissions system is difficult to run in a "robust, rigorous and professional way" and that the government will support their "rapid expansion" if they centralise admissions.

The Cambridge response says talent and potential rather than social or financial background must be the basis for admissions. It insists that a college-based admissions process allows a more thorough assessment of applicants, with better comparisons between subjects being carried out by a large and experienced group of selectors, who can identify potential in students who may have been disadvantaged in their previous education.

The council says: "We strongly endorse the statement that it is not for the government to prescribe university admission systems."

Last year, Cambridge fell short of all three benchmarks - intake from state schools, from social classes three, four and five and from low-participation neighbourhoods. The response warns of a proliferation of benchmarks, leading to confusion and ineffectiveness.

The council accuses the government of adopting a "narrow utilitarian" view of higher education. It warns that the economic benefits from universities'

work must not obscure the broader principles of advancing education, learning and research, which are also fundamental to a free society.

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