Universities could take over failing hospitals in a devolved National Health Service, the health secretary said last week.
A few universities have been moving towards shared management arrangements between medical schools or health faculties and NHStrusts in recent years. Alan Milburn's announcement is seen as a continuation of this trend. The shared arrangements are called partnerships, not take-overs. They are with hospitals with strong teaching and research links rather than failing ones.
In a speech that set out a vision of a decentralised NHS operating in a framework of independently regulated national standards, Mr Milburn said: "The franchise (for an underperforming trust) could go not just to another public-sector health organisation but, in time, to a not-for-profit body such as a university or charity or to some other external management team." He stressed that the assets of the local hospital or trust would remain in public ownership.
Nigel Crisp, chief executive of the NHS, said this week that it was early days. Hospitals that are seen to be failing would first be given time to sort themselves out. Only then, if necessary, would other organisations be invited to bid to manage them. Such other organisations could include universities, he said.
A spokesperson for Universities UK said: "The suggestion that universities could take over hospital franchises recognises the role universities already play in the running of hospitals.
"It would be a high-risk strategy, with universities expected to work within different governance structures and very different budgets." Hospital budgets dwarf those of medical schools.
A Nuffield Trust report on the university-NHS partnership two years ago proposed academic, or university, medical centres, where universities and hospitals share management.
Sir Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of Manchester University and chair of the UUK health committee, said: "Informal discussions have taken place in Manchester in the past on shared management arrangements along the lines of the proposed academic medical centres."
Newcastle University is keen to set up a university medical centre with the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust. Sir Miles Irvine, chairman of the trust, said: "We have already established a joint clinical research centre and are making gentle progress towards creating a new centre. This is a very radical change."