Hefce official publicly rebukes CBI director

One of the English funding council's most senior officials publicly rebuked a business leader after she suggested that some universities were "perilously close" to being in financial trouble.

December 1, 2011

David Sweeney, director for research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, spoke out after comments made by Susan Anderson, director of public services and skills at the CBI.

Ms Anderson raised the prospect of institutional failure leading to more mergers and takeovers during a panel discussion on "responsible universities", hosted by the Social Market Foundation and held at the British Academy in London last week.

But her comments were challenged from the audience by Mr Sweeney, who accused her of "loose talk" that could in itself threaten to undermine universities' prospects.

He compared her comments with the idea of university officials choosing to "talk down" a business such as travel firm Thomas Cook - which has been in financial difficulty - when they had no real information about its accounts.

He said: "It is really, really, really unhelpful for the CBI, [which does] not know about the underlying finances of higher education, to talk about universities being 'perilously close' to trouble. That's just loose talk that scares people who'll go to university.

"I will not do it about your members, and you should not do it...about institutions that you just do not understand."

Ms Anderson was visibly taken aback by Mr Sweeney's interjection. In her reply, she sounded contrite and said that the sector's success in helping domestic and export growth showed it was "healthy".

Mr Sweeney, a panellist in a subsequent discussion, later said he was often "nervous" about the "hypothetical" scenarios that were sometimes raised in debates about higher education.

"To talk like that and dissuade students from going to university I don't think serves the best interest of students, the university or the country," he said.

He also spoke about the possibility of universities "over-recruiting" students by ignoring the limits on places and warned that Hefce fines should not be the only deterrent dissuading them from such action.

"The responsibility is with universities to observe there's a cost to the nation of their activity and play their role in ensuring the system is affordable to the state," he said.

The event also heard a frank admission from David Willetts, the universities and science minister, that competition over fees was limited due to the nature of repayment.

"As soon as you have a graduate repayment scheme that is as progressive and fair as the one we have, it is hard to see how we can have price competition of the sort that some purists think we should have had," he said.

"Nobody faced with a choice between going to university A, charging £8,750 fees, and university B, charging £8,250, is going to say, 'I must go to university B to save £500', because they don't pay that money upfront."

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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