Model of true autonomy free from state bondage

March 21, 2003

Buckingham shows how the state could support a UK Ivy League, argues Terence Kealey

Did we nationalise the universities the wrong way? Until the first world war, British universities were independent, and, though they and their students accepted government grants for research and scholarships, the institutions were free to charge fees and to run themselves as they wished. Their relationship with the government was that of a contractor and a customer, not of a dependant and a master.

It was the Great War that, by destroying universities' two major sources of income, destroyed their autonomy. Universities' endowments had been invested largely in fixed-interest vehicles, which had performed well between 1815 and 1914. But the inflation of 1914-18 destroyed three-quarters of the value of the pound - and thus three-quarters of the universities' endowment income. The universities' fee income also collapsed as young men went to war.

By 1919, every British university was bankrupt. In response, the government created the University Grants Committee, the precursor of the higher education funding councils. Initially the money was distributed under the Haldane Principle, under which it arrived with no more strings than any endowment fund; today it comes with enough strings to satisfy a bondage queen. The government now so rules that Margaret Thatcher, the dominatrix supreme, would overrule the research councils and cancel the grants she did not like.

Yet the government need no longer rule higher education so absolutely because it no longer funds it so absolutely. With so many students enrolled, the government has abandoned much of its maintenance support, and students now pay top-up fees. But, perversely, with each financial retreat the government has increased its control - larger top-up fees will be chargeable by grace of the Access-Finder General only. The government is leading universities not down the Ivy League route but towards the US state university model.

US state universities are owned by the state governments, which write their statutes and set their subsidies. Most state universities charge certain students certain fees, and almost all of them chase endowments, yet they remain subject to state legislatures - fees and endowments do not independence make.

The Ivy League is independent. It receives vast government grants, particularly for research, but because those grants are optional they need not damage autonomy - in all his years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Noam Chomsky has never been admonished for his anti-government views, even though MIT once derived 90 per cent of its research income from the defense department. Independence allows a university to charge full fees and thus fund itself properly but, more importantly, independence pre-empts self-censorship. Few state universities in any country will indulge iconoclasts the way MIT indulges Professor Chomsky.

No Ivy League university, moreover, substitutes a politician's admissions criteria for its own. As we in Britain embrace top-up fees and loans, we may hope we are edging towards the Ivy League model of independence, but because the government has leveraged its higher education funding council cash to achieve ever more control, we are fated with the worst of all worlds: subordinate like state universities but access restricted like private ones.

Through this gloom only one British university beckons as a beacon of freedom and of access. Uniquely in Britain, Buckingham is independent according to the Ivy League model. Yet its students have always received government subsidies towards their fees (currently £2,500 a year).

Those subsidies represent the best sort of state-private partnership because they widen access without imperilling autonomy or quality. Because Buckingham charges full fees, it boasts a student-to-staff ratio of 10:1.

But because Buckingham teaches through a fourth, summer, term - undergraduate degrees last only two years - it also provides a cost-effective and accessible education for British students from traditional and non-traditional families alike.

Buckingham should be the model for the Russell Group because it shows how the state could support a UK Ivy League. A unilateral declaration of independence is not an option for the Russell Group because its members lack the endowments for needs-blind admissions, but government subsidies towards fees at independent universities would widen access without imperilling academic autonomy. Let the Russell Group universities aspire, therefore, to convert their funding council cash into fee subsidies and scholarships, but let them otherwise charge full fees and run themselves independently.

Terence Kealey is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

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