UK academics call for university closures to reverse massification

Study also proposes creation of new ‘free’ universities to move away from marketisation

August 11, 2020

Some existing UK universities should be closed down while new institutions that are free from excessive regulation should be established to “save” the UK’s higher education sector, two scholars have claimed in a new report.

In a study published by the thinktank Cieo, Lee Jones, reader in international politics at Queen Mary University of London, and Philip Cunliffe, senior lecturer in international conflict at the University of Kent, call for a “fundamental rethink of UK HE”, which they argue was “already in deep trouble well before Covid-19 struck” as a result of over-expansion and marketisation.

The academics say that widening participation has largely involved funnelling poorer students into low-quality institutions, while marketisation has led to wasteful spending, bureaucracy and managerialism.

Dr Jones and Dr Cunliffe say that the UK university sector should be reduced in size, through a mixture of institutional closures, mergers and transformations. This would include the creation of three new kinds of institutions: new technical colleges; “super-universities”, formed by merging weaker institutions with stronger ones; and liberal arts colleges with a teaching focus.

However, they add that merely downsizing the sector while retaining market-style governance would not solve its problems.

The report, Saving Britain’s Universities: Academic Freedom, Democracy and Renewal, also calls for the creation of four new “free universities”, one for each country in the UK, which would be endowed with independent funding and entirely autonomous from the government.

“Their founding constitutions should commit them to the most wide-ranging pursuit of intellectual freedom, represent the widest possible range of intellectual views, and pursue research excellence for the long-term future, with a liberal ethos of teaching,” it says.

“Faculties and departments should be focused around multi-disciplinary areas identified for future need and putting Britain at the cutting edge of global discovery.”

Dr Jones and Dr Cunliffe add that the new free universities would “spur intellectual renewal within the profession as a whole”.

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Reader's comments (10)

It seems that more people are at last willing to put their heads above the parapet on this issue. For all of my 28 years in academia, the views in the article have been commonly discussed in the coffee rooms of my various university employers but were not taken further. Perhaps the time has come at last for a change and a return to a more sustainable system.
"...marketisation has led to wasteful spending, bureaucracy and managerialism." It is not just markestisation that encouraged these effects, it is also the adoption of index/paperwork based assessments like REF, TEF, Athena Swan by the govt etc.... that resulted in HE employing more and more administrators to 'manage' academics and process the paperwork.
Hear, hear!
It seems to be a little known fact that, bar profit-making institutions, universities are charities as a matter of law. As such, the governing bodies have an overriding duty to act in the best interests of the charity and this means acting in the best interests of fulfilling their stated charitable purposes - not their self-chosen 'mission', but the ones in their founding document (which are often the sort of purposes you suggest here). Arguably, a proper performance of that duty would bring about many of the improvements in higher education that commentators, as here, are calling for - in terms of education and research strategies, governance structures, executive pay and admissions (among others). An essential hallmark of charitable status is also independence from the State. Whilst it might be possible for that status to be lost, for example explicit legislative action, it is more a matter of proper performance of that duty overriding any temptation to pursue government policy, even to the point of refusing funding on certain terms. At least, that's the sort of thing I shall be exploring in my forthcoming book, The University-Charity!
The report contained more sense than I have heard in many a long year.
Why not remove the fee cap and let a complete free market happen? Is creating more protectionism the way forward? Let poorly managed universities fail.
They are right so much money is wasted on senior overpaid administrators, bureaucrats and too many overpaid pro-VCs. There is also an urgent need to abolish the misnamed Quality Assurance Agency and Office for Students - those two organizations are full of failed academics and BS jobs. They create the justification for all the bureaucracy that has plagued the UK Universities. We need to stop this enormous waste of money and free academics time so they can actually do the job of teaching and research rather than form filling and silly meetings that usually achieve nothing,
Of course, there was no bureaucracy or wasting of money back in the day...
This is a very welcome article and the point made above about charitable status is important. Members of governing bodies are legally responsible as charity trustees. I look forward to reading the book. As to marketisation, I was happy to receive printed, factual prospectuses in 1966, although as I recall Leicester charged for theirs. No marketing. I chose my university, Kent, on the basis of their programme. Much later, I joined the University of Stirling administration in 1986. One of my team was p.r. officer , 0.5 fte on the lowest admin grade. There was no marketing at all. Among other things he produced the prospectus. Now look at that University’s website to see the enormous increase in p.r. people, although the student numbers would not justify that. It must be that the governing body has decided to invest significantly in marketing. Not just Stirling but every other institution. At what cost to public funds?