Let us create a British Ivy League, says former government adviser

Sir Cyril Taylor calls for more private provision and an end to the cap on student numbers and fees. Rebecca Attwood reports

July 16, 2009

Universities should be free to set their own fees, it was a mistake to turn polytechnics into universities, and more private institutions should be established in the UK.

These are some of the controversial views that Sir Cyril Taylor, the former government education adviser, will present to the Institute of Economic Affairs today.

In a report titled How English Universities Could Learn from the American Higher Education System, Sir Cyril argues that UK universities are “micro-managed” and should be given greater freedom from government control.

The report says it is “unacceptable” that student numbers are capped by the Government. It adds that responsibility for schools, further and higher education should be moved back into one department, as was the case with the old Department for Education and Skills.

Analysing the differences between the UK and US higher education systems, Sir Cyril says that the latter offers students a high standard of education and greater choice.

There are more than 7,000 accredited higher education institutions in the US, compared with just 169 institutions with degree-awarding powers in the UK. In addition, the number of British universities ranked in the global top 100 is much smaller than the difference between the countries’ populations warrants, the report says.

Seeking to explain these discrepancies, Sir Cyril writes: “US universities are much more independent of state control than their British counterparts, which in many respects were micro-managed by the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills… It is therefore strongly recommended that British universities and further education colleges be given greater control over their finances, including the right to set tuition fees, the numbers of students they enrol and their particular educational focus.”

To improve diversity and increase choice, he recommends the establishment of new types of higher education institutions in the UK with degree-awarding powers.

“It was clearly a mistake to require the original polytechnics to convert into universities, rather than allowing them to find their own identity as independent institutions,” the report says. “In the United States, many prestigious colleges focus on teaching their students rather than on research.”

Sir Cyril also criticises the lack of financial support for part-time students in the UK, contrasting this with the US system, under which many students work part-time but are still eligible for aid.

The UK should also adopt the American system of credit transfer, with the aim of empowering more further education colleges to award degrees. In addition, more should be done to support philanthropy, he says.

“Allowing greater independence in general to universities, including the right to set their own fees, would encourage greater diversity in our higher education system, including encouraging more universities, especially the former polytechnics, to focus on teaching rather than trying to become research institutions,” he writes.

“Raising student tuition fees will be difficult, but long term, a greater proportion of tuition costs should be paid by the students, providing there is adequate financial support for those needing assistance, and that the additional funding from increased fees is retained by the universities rather than leading to a reduction in government funds.”

Giving universities greater independence would encourage new approaches to the structure of degrees, such as a broader, multidisciplinary first year, the report says.

“Finally, there should be greater encouragement for the establishment of new for-profit universities for undergraduates – BPP is a good example of this,” he writes.

Sir Cyril acknowledges that some will argue that his ideas are “too radical”, but he claims that Richmond, the American International University in London – a private university of which he is chancellor – proves that US-style independent higher education institutions are viable in the UK, even without financial support from the Government.

He concludes: “It is time to give our universities the freedom they require to thrive in what has become a global market in higher education. If they are given that freedom, they will respond by raising their standards and also providing greater choice and diversity.”

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

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