We don't need a government push, just rational regulation, says v-c

Surrey's head hopes for light-touch policies that leave institutions with their autonomy intact, writes Simon Baker

November 18, 2010

Universities do not need to be "pushed" into widening participation and the government should be careful to not invite "over-regulation" into the sector when it is already a minority stakeholder in some institutions, a vice-chancellor has warned.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Christopher Snowden from the University of Surrey said there are question marks about the form that policies on fair access will take and the effect on institutional autonomy of wider reforms proposed by the Browne Review.

He said that institutions such as Surrey - where less than 26 per cent of core income comes via the Higher Education Funding Council for England - already operate a "mixed economy" and that this should be taken into account while regulatory overhaul is considered.

"Our major stakeholders today are the students, and imagine where we are going to be in years to come," he said. "I think there is a need to have some sense of quality control. It is good for the sector, but that isn't an invitation to put over-regulation in place."

He added: "Just as an example, I don't believe there is a university in the land that isn't keen to engage in widening participation and outreach. We all do it because we believe it is a good thing to do, so I don't think we need to be pushed into it."

Professor Snowden's comments come as concerns mount about the proposed National Scholarship Scheme, which all universities charging annual tuition fees higher than £6,000 will be obliged to join.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has said that the exact form of the scheme is yet to be decided, but that the government is looking for "matched contributions" from institutions to supplement the £150 million scheme.

One vice-chancellor, who did not want to be named, said there is a danger that the proposal may act in the same way as Lord Browne of Madingley's rejected proposal for a levy on fees by forcing universities to charge more to offset the diverted income.

Professor Snowden said universities need some clarity about the shape of the scheme, but he stressed that aspiration among students from lower socio-economic groups also needs attention.

Experience counts

On wider plans for regulatory reform, he urged the government not to rely too heavily on narrow definitions of quality, especially when comparing private providers with established universities, which are not simply a "production line for a qualification".

"The reason most students go to a residential university is that they're looking for an experience - and that is a lot more than simply gaining the qualification. That is something that needs to be properly accounted for," he said.

The importance of building a student experience also meant that Surrey - which has the best graduate employability ratings in the sector - would not seek to withdraw from subjects where funding was cut back, he said.

"If you talk to science and engineering students, they are really happy to be here with students studying, for example, dance or music or English. They see this as the richness of experience they come to university for," he said.

His comments follow the government's decision to reduce funding for higher education by 40 per cent by 2014-15, with the bulk of the cut falling on teaching.

This is expected to result in certain subjects, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences, losing their teaching funding entirely, while only more expensive "priority subjects", such as science and engineering, will continue to be subsidised by the government.

However, rather than restricting their offerings, Professor Snowden said that universities would best weather the gathering storm by diversifying their activity in both research and teaching.

This was a lesson that Surrey had learned from the 1980s, when it was affected badly by funding cuts, he said. It has since invested heavily in a science park, created successful spin-off companies that have sold for millions of pounds, secured a high level of European funding for research and ensured a rich mix of international and home students.

"Surrey decided it didn't want to be as vulnerable (as it was in the 1980s) again," Professor Snowden said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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