Why I think universities must fight harder for academic freedom

March 4, 2005

There is a curious relationship between universities and the Government in Britain. Crudely summed up, it is the inverse of "he who pays the piper calls the tune".

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, government grants supplied about three quarters of university income. And yet those are the days fondly recalled as the golden age, when the University Grants Committee kept the state at arm's length. At the start of the 21st century, government grant provides a mere 39 per cent of recurrent income.

Universities have diversified. Tuition fees - funded in part by the Government - bring in a further 23 per cent of income. The remainder comes from research contracts - again, partly from the public purse - and other streams of operating income, such as residences and catering.

On the basis of such funding, an outsider would think that university autonomy was much weaker in the third quarter of the 20th century than now. But that does not appear to be the case. Back then, the sector was small; a minority went to university. The Treasury could feel pretty confident about quality and standards in higher education. The outstanding harvest of Nobel prizes spoke for itself. Universities were left alone. But now we have a mass system and the state is jittery about getting value for money.

Downing Street, the Treasury and education ministries feel the need to order education. What universities do is too important to the economy to be left alone. Participation targets are set, social-class access benchmarks are put in place, quasi-national curricula are developed, institutions are made to compete for reduced funding, business-oriented missions are encouraged, research is squeezed into an assessment exercise-shaped mould. The fundamentals of autonomy, such as freedom to teach and research what and whom one wants, are eroded.

There is a case for public accountability given the amount of taxpayers' money going into universities. Less justifiable are the political goals being achieved via higher education and the impoverishment of intellectual culture arising from the need to please assessors.

Bar the occasional digging in of heels, universities have put up with much greater public interference in their everyday lives. Michael Beloff QC, president of Trinity College, Oxford, last year called for the Department for Education and Skills to "take its tanks off Oxford's lawns" over the issue of state pressure for wider social access to higher education. But it was a symptomatic skirmish rather than a call to arms.

Why has the sector been relatively passive at a time when the funding carrot has shrunk and intervention has increased?

The drubbing received at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and a succession of hostile education ministers has left a generation of vice-chancellors feeling cowed.

Paradoxically, the more that public funds have been squeezed, the more institutions have felt under pressure to comply with the conditions attached to what they are given, because of their financial difficulties.

If vice-chancellors want to shake off the state, institutions need greater financial independence. Diversifying income has clearly not been enough to give vice-chancellors the kind of autonomy they might like.

It is not surprising that English universities have welcomed top-up fees, albeit with strings attached. The irony is that it has taken a government initiative to give them the opportunity to reclaim some independence.

Universities need to be more willing to defend what they think is important, such as innovative teaching and research, without having to keep a weather eye on the assessors. They also need the courage to say no to the latest initiative if it takes them in a direction they do not want to go.

But with income at risk, such decisions are hard to make.

Stephen Court. Senior research officer. Association of University Teachers

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments