Wham, bam, no thanks Uncle Sam

September 22, 2000

Limited raw materials and high standards of living mean future UK prosperity will be guaranteed only if we can deliver high-value, innovative products and services. These will come if we have knowledge and we exploit it; the higher education system is central to this process.

Debate over the future funding of the system should, therefore, be elevated above the "tired old rhetoric".

The system already lives up to the image of Andrew Marks (Letters, THES, September 15): there is a hierarchy of institutions and the better-off student is disproportionately represented at the top end of this hierarchy. There are also many other problems, but by far the worst feature is the inability to get out of this situation.

Money is undoubtedly a root cause of these problems, but the state cannot fork out much more.

The only other source of funding is private. While there are potential pitfalls, problems such as those outlined by Marks need not occur.

A "needs-blind" system of selection, for example, would avoid the better universities being bastions for the rich - this is well demonstrated by the US system where many of the private universities have a student mix that is the envy of many of the UK's universities.

Current funding arrangements encourage institutions to dilute their efforts in the pursuit of various buckets of cash. A more diverse system would allow institutions to focus on achieving excellence appropriate to their mission and allow institutions to avoid the "bargain basement" label. The proof is the many US private and state-funded non-research institutions that are highly regarded by all.

Mark Biggs

Guildford, Surrey

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