King’s dean: English universities should consider going private

Leaving state regulatory system might free institutions from ministers’ ‘deeply flawed’ fixation with value for money, says Frans Berkhout

June 27, 2018
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English universities should consider going private to free themselves from growing state regulation, according to a leading academic.

Frans Berkhout, executive dean of the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s College London, said that leaving the English regulatory system might free universities from ministers’ fixation with “value for money” for students and allow them to also focus on the wider public benefits of higher education.

According to an advance text of his inaugural lecture, delivered on 26 June, Professor Berkhout was due to say that “there needs to be a debate amongst the universities about whether we can protect both the private and public values of a university education better by freeing ourselves from intervention by the state altogether”.

“The government, in its latest legislation, is seeking to encourage a greater variety of providers, including more private providers. Some of the greatest universities in the world, the Ivy League universities in the United States, are private institutions, as are many of the most significant new universities in emerging economies,” Professor Berkhout was due to say.

“Perhaps it is time for public universities in this country to look carefully at those models, and to seize an opportunity which has presented itself.”

Speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of the lecture, Professor Berkhout – who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the International Panel on Climate Change – criticised the “deeply flawed discourse” about higher education in the UK which had “narrowed and impoverished” understanding of the value of universities.

The notion that the student is a “consumer” had led ministers and the public to focus on the short-term private benefits of higher education, rather than the long-term public goods like the creation of engaged citizens with a global outlook, explained Professor Berkhout. Sam Gyimah, the universities minister in the Westminster government, recently criticised courses that were deemed to be poor value for money and the topic has been written into the duties of the new regulator, the Office for Students, which has wide-ranging powers to punish universities if they fall short of expectations.

“The university system in this country is completely overregulated and that is part of the problem,” Professor Berkhout said. “We need to be freed in order to do the good things that we can do.”

Universities were already discussing the idea, he said. The idea of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge going private has been repeatedly floated in the past.

Leaving the state regulatory system would allow institutions to set their own fee levels but, under current rules, universities making this move would lose access to government-backed student loan finance and quality-related research funding.

However, Ivy League institutions set their own fee levels and used this income to provide scholarships, while taking their public duties seriously, Professor Berkhout said.

Professor Berkhout said that considering going private would be a “baring of teeth” to ministers, to send the message that “if you really mess around and make it impossible for universities to do what we believe is so fundamentally important – which is to educate people properly and also to generate a public value – then we will have to look at other ways of organising ourselves”.

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