Regulation poses threat to sector's 'resilience', warns Warwick chief

Reviews and initiatives put pressure on universities to constantly prove their worth. John Gill reports

April 3, 2008

Universities are under threat from an overbearing and interfering Government, an audience of leading administrators has been told.

In a keynote speech at the Association of University Administrators conference this week, Jon Baldwin, registrar of the University of Warwick, said universities were "in danger of losing their proud unbeaten record" of resilience.

"That proud tradition is under threat from all sides, but significantly from an intervening and increasingly interfering Government," he said.

"It has to stop or the challenges that university administrators face in 2008 will simply weigh too heavily on us. Or perhaps we can rise again and accept the latest challenge."

Describing the higher education sector as a "maze" with countless demands made on universities by regulators, he said: "It's never enough. No matter how well we do, there's always more to be done, another way to demonstrate our effectiveness, to show that we're well managed, to prove that we know what we're doing."

He said he worried when the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was established about the potential for a "massive increase in interference", adding: "Surely the temptation to indulge in a raft of interventions would be too great to resist in such a narrow department with five ministers."

He pointed to the seven reviews of the challenges facing the sector, commissioned by the DIUS, and the recent white paper Innovation Nation, which set out another series of initiatives, and asked: "Have we ever been as regulated or reviewed?"

Outlining the key issues that universities must get to grips with in the changing higher education market, Mr Baldwin described the growing "consumer mentality" of students in an era of tuition fees.

He suggested that the sector should do more to keep pace with the service provided by schools, which he said offered an increasingly "personalised educational experience".

He also predicted that discussions about the introduction of student contracts, and questions about contact hours, were likely to gather pace.

On financial sustainability, he said that differences in spending on higher education tuition between Europe and US - as much as £10,000 per student - meant that institutions in the UK had "no choice" but to continue to develop alternative streams of income.

He cautioned that if the fees cap was lifted after the review next year, consumer expectations of students would grow - and perhaps grow exponentially.

"It is not beyond the realms of possibility that a fees market may be created within the UK - and with that a perception, or a reality, of quality linked to price," he said.

He asked whether raising the cap would "take us a step further along the spectrum from collegium to corporation", but insisted that the sector "cannot afford to stand still".

Having highlighted his concerns, Mr Baldwin said his belief in the resilience of universities remained firm, and he described administrators as "the glue that holds the university together".

"Universities survive and have proven their ability to raise their game and respond to change over the centuries," he said.

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