The best course for you may not be at the 'best' university

UUK vice-president Sir Christopher Snowden tells John Morgan of his concerns over 'government rhetoric'

September 20, 2012

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, is wrong to talk about getting students into "the best universities", according to the vice-chancellor who is a potential next president of Universities UK.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Sir Christopher Snowden, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey and the current vice-president of UUK, noted that Mr Willetts "talks about [how] 'students should be able to go the best universities'".

"But it doesn't work that way," Sir Christopher said. "The best course for what you want to do may not be in the 'best' university."

He added: "That [point] gets somewhat lost in the government rhetoric over 'best universities'. In such a diverse sector there are many universities that have excellent courses and differing strengths."

In the autumn, vice-chancellors will elect a new president of UUK, which represents member institutions in talks with the government. Eric Thomas, the University of Bristol vice-chancellor who is the current president, reaches the end of his two-year term in August 2013.

Sir Christopher did not rule out running for the role when asked if he would stand for election later in the year. "Time will tell," he said.

Before taking over at Surrey, the University of Leeds engineering graduate was chief executive officer of Filtronic ICS, an international technology company and semiconductor manufacturer.

A critic of excessive regulation, Sir Christopher said: "There's not a proper appreciation by government that most universities gain the bulk of their funding from non-government sources." His view is that "students are paying the £9,000" rather than the government.

He suggests it could be argued that as public funding decreases, the government has less right to dictate how higher education should be shaped.

Yet government interventions in higher education, such as the AAB policy on student numbers and the UK Border Agency's visa [restrictions], create additional bureaucracy, he noted.

"I don't think there are many sectors - you've got to bear in mind I came from industry - that are as heavily universities," Sir Christopher said.

He pointed out that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has "more public funding in it than Surrey. Surrey has one of the lowest levels of public funding in the UK."

Does that ever lead to the conclusion that Surrey could go "private" by pulling out of the group of institutions funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England?

"That isn't an issue that we have been juggling with at all. Philosophically, neither the staff in universities in the UK nor the general public particularly favour or wish to see major universities become private institutions at this time," Sir Christopher said.

Could any other university go private? "Not in the short term," he said. "I've talked to a lot of vice-chancellors about this." But he added: "It's the sort of thing that if you go 20 years in the future, if the current trend continues, it might well happen."

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