The value of free thinkers

November 8, 1996

THIS week sees three government attempts to assert government control of universities. Legislation is before the lower house of the Irish parliament on university governance (page 52). In Britain, there are proposals from the Department for Education and Employment in England and Wales to give the minister control of the curriculum for teacher education. And the Higher Education Funding Council for England is demanding the right to control as well as fund universities (page 3).

The issue is who controls universities and how they are to account for the public money they get. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, where money is given to universities in comparatively unhypothecated form, there is much to lose.

There are two main reasons why politicians are interested in universities. The less interesting one is that they absorb taxpayers' money. This means that they have a duty not to waste it, which implies openness, value for money, and the arrival of government auditors. But more significant than this is the fact that universities are the main producers of criticism, ideas and highly qualified personnel in a modern economy. The temptation to try to harness them to government purposes is all but irresistible. But it must be resist- ed. Though universities receive large sums of public money they are not, de jure, nationalised. Vice chancellors are not generals or prison governors who are public servants spending public money. They are heads of independent institutions which must account for state funds but which have wider responsibilities too.

In the UK, state control over school education, already strengthened by the national curriculum, the reduction of local authority influence and the growth in power of Ofsted, is to be augmented by the secretary of state taking control over the teacher training curriculum. Despite recent controversies over schools and teaching, there is no reason to think that teacher training is in so disastrous a state that the autonomy of our universities needs to be sacrificed, or that involving politicians and bureaucrats will improve things.

In Ireland, the legislation under consideration would put government nominees on university governing bodies as well as extending the powers of the Higher Education Authority. On the evidence of the market, where graduates of the Irish universities are in demand, there is little need for change, especially if it erodes university independence. It is essential to reinforce systems for quality and to insist that only open and accountable institutions can get public money. Exerting direct control over universities, part of whose job is to say unfashionable things and disagree with people in positions of power, is quite another matter.

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