The damage inflicted on British universities by the "suffocating bureaucracy of government assessment" was a matter of escalating concern, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Sir Alec Broers, said in Melbourne last week.
Sir Alec said it was time for action to eliminate the external assessment process and allow "the market" to rule. "If a university does not maintain its own quality then its students will go elsewhere," he said.
Delivering the annual Sir Robert Menzies oration at the University of Melbourne, Sir Alec said that Britain was confusing evaluation of process with achievement. "We are more concerned about the mechanisms for assuring that our teaching is of high quality than we are about actually delivering high-quality teaching," he said.
"We are also finding it very difficult to come up with a system that preserves the individuality of institutions," he added.
Sir Alec said that a particular difficulty with any form of external assessment was that it depressed morale by introducing a sense of mistrust. If an organisation decided to assess itself there was credibility and commitment to the process.
Sir Alec, a graduate of Melbourne before leaving to study at Cambridge, has replaced Lord Dearing as one of two overseas members on the university's governing council. He said he believed that Melbourne University's private offshoot was a more realistic move towards independence.
On the issue of funding higher education, he said more money was needed, especially for salaries. The competition for leading academics was increasing and most universities were losing out to competitors in the United States. The key question was whether students should contribute and, if so, how much.
Sir Alec said that the UK was looking to Australia's Higher Education Contribution Scheme as a possible model. "(But) many of us feel strongly that government contribution should not be reduced as a consequence of money provided by students," he said.
Sir Alec said that although critics warned that university collaboration with industry put at risk "disinterested inquiry" and threatened intellectual freedom, the reverse was true - provided certain precautions were taken.
There was a need for interdisciplinary research and for access to greater resources, Sir Alec said. This could be achieved through partnerships with industry.
"Industry may support universities by paying for academics to pursue their research, or, better, it may have its own researchers join with the academics to pursue mutual research aims. For universities to maintain intellectual freedom it is necessary... for the aims of the industrial supporter to be genuinely the pursuit of research. If the aim is the development of new products... then collaboration should be avoided."