Let them decide how good they want to be

September 8, 2000

In the final part of our series on universities in the 21st century, Tim Knox argues for freedom from social engineering, targets for participation and other constraints on the pursuit of quality.

"A university," said Disraeli, "should be a place of light, of liberty and of learning."

The best British universities certainly remain places of formidable learning in spite of the many privations that they face. In the amount of light they produce, they still manage to shine above their wattage.

But there is no doubt that the university sector generally is under severe strain. Concerns about attracting and keeping the best academics, meeting the costs of cutting-edge research and maintaining academic standards have led many to question the mechanisms for the provision of higher education. The real problem lies with Disraeli's second component: "liberty". The freedom of universities to pursue excellence has been undermined by the constraints placed on them, both financial and academic. The time has come for universities to break free of the control of the state and regain their confidence.

In spite of their nominal independence, universities are in truth constrained in numerous ways. And in spite of the windfalls of the comprehensive spending review, public expenditure on higher education is still tightly controlled by the Treasury and the Department for Education and Employment. Our best universities have done well in securing additional funds through links with business, but they are prevented from topping up their state allocation by charging higher tuition fees. Any sum levied in excess of the amount stipulated by the secretary of state is clawed back by the Treasury.

Research too is heavily controlled by state agencies. It is well known that the research assessment process encourages short-termism, at times privileging quantity above quality. Universities, though, are unable to escape the treadmill of the assessment process. Education secretary David Blunkett has also made a point of criticising academics for their failure to make their research more "relevant" to government agencies: one fears that if Aristotle was being funded by the Blair government, he would be told to buckle down to something a bit more useful.

Our universities are also being told which candidates they must select. The Laura Spence debacle has resulted in plans to ration university funds on the basis of the extent to which intakes match the profile demanded by the government. Universities that attract too many students from middle-class backgrounds or from independent schools will suffer financial penalties.

All of this adds up to a picture of a higher education sector almost under siege by the state. As with so many other national institutions, this interference is dragging down standards, as universities become a mere tool for facilitating a broader social and political agenda. If the next few decades are not to hold yet more disappointment for higher education, it is time for our universities to make a declaration of independence.

What would securing independence from the state mean for universities?

First, it would mean the ability to control their own funding. A British Ivy League - no longer in the state's pocket - could levy a premium for the additional advantage that its students would gain. As a report commissioned by the Russell Group pointed out, even if fees were increased, universities would still offer good value to students: the lifetime earning advantage for graduates is calculated at about Pounds 400,000. Those universities that are competing at a global level would then have the funds to pay their academics a more competitive wage and to invest in cutting-edge research.

Other universities might choose to stick with the current level of funding and make their lower fees their unique selling point. In this way, we could establish greater diversity in higher education provision in the UK, giving students a real choice. It would mean ending the pretence that all degrees are the same. The Dearing report's conclusions were founded on this belief, which still permeates the Labour government and is leading to falling standards. But employers and students are not fooled by this comprehensivisation. People know that different degrees from different institutions are worth different amounts. Freedom would mean that universities could start making the most of those differences rather than attempting to cover them up.

A major factor in the dilution of standards, moreover, has been the blind political insistence on shepherding more and more students into degree courses. Freedom would mean an end to arbitrary Whitehall targets for the number of students universities are to take. In the past 40 years, university attendance has increased from about 5 per cent of 18-year-olds to more than a third. It is the prime minister's target that this figure should reach 50 per cent - a truly massive increase from the figure in the 1960s.

At no point, though, has anyone investigated whether the targets set by ministers represent a sensible level of participation in higher education. It is always assumed that cramming as many people into lecture theatres as possible is a good thing.

It is not. There are many people induced into university courses who will end up disappointed. Some would have been better off outside even a more diverse system. But government targets for mass participation have corralled them into third-rate courses, leading to third-rate degrees.

Even as academics note major gaps in the basic knowledge and abilities of entrants, the government proposes to open the floodgates to even more.

An end to such targets will mean that universities will be able to stop dumbing down. An end also to the absurd attempts to use universities as part of a project of social engineering will allow standards to rise again. There is no academic rationale for allotting places on the basis of class or schooling: if a university is to remain a place of learning, it must be able to choose its students on merit alone, without having to meet targets for students' backgrounds. Until Britain's schools are able to produce leavers with the skills and knowledge to enable them to make the most of a university education, projects to increase student numbers or widen the student base are likely to result only in lower standards.

So where will universities be in, say, 20 years time? There are two options. The first is to continue as at present: carrying a begging bowl to government at each public spending round, making up the numbers by making up new courses, stifling choice and diversity, seeing the best and brightest desert to the private sector or across the Atlantic.

The second is that they be given the opportunity to declare independence. This is not easy - it will take a while, for example, for some to come to terms with paying higher fees for some degrees. It is hardly an unprecedented course. Most other institutions under government control have been given more freedom, be it the privatised utilities, schools or hospitals. Universities are possibly unique in being forced down the opposite road - an effective nationalisation. This, then, is the choice facing universities. What to do? Choose freedom. Choose excellence. Choose better pay. Choose science degrees, not surfing degrees. Choose light, liberty and learning.

Tim Knox is editor of the Centre for Policy Studies journal.

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