Would it work here?

March 16, 2001

The essence of the University of Wisconsin system is that institutions, even prestigious, research-intensive ones, have more to gain than to lose by, in effect, pooling their sovereignty and accepting some constraints on their future development or action.

The potential benefits in terms of providing a greater range of choices for students and employers, and avoiding academic drift, are considerable. However, given the fact that some Russell Group universities, or at least their vice-chancellors, do not see themselves as belonging to a national system, it is very hard to see its being applied across the board in the United Kingdom.

There could be more mileage in its being operated on a regional or sub-regional basis. There would need to be a deal whereby each participating institution was better off belonging to a system than being outside. Although there have been surreptitious moves to rationalise the system, for example by tightening the rules for university title, this process still has some way to go.

Similarly, while there are increasing pressures for collaboration, competition between institutions is still very much the name of the game (some degree of competition would remain even in a regulated system). One issue that arises is whether the system would cover all local higher education institutions or all local higher education providers -including further education colleges offering higher education programmes. There is an increasingly strong case for greater local coordination of post-16 education and training. Perhaps higher education should be taking the initiative.

One important point is that in any system there would need to be a top-level authority with teeth -local systems cannot simply be dominated by the local Russell Group institution or its equivalent. This would create another layer of governance as institutions will retain their existing legal identities. However, there is no reason why the total bureaucratic overhead needs to be greater.

Finally, an important difference between the Wisconsin system (at least as practised in Wisconsin) and the UK (or at least England) is the context in which the system operates. My strongest impression of Wisconsin is the degree of state and societal support for, and confidence in, the state system of higher education. How much easier it would be if higher education in England had the same support.

Roger Brown is principal of the Southampton Institute and organiser of the 1999 mission to Wisconsin.

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