Universities won’t fail because of mismanagement

The chair of the Office for Students has declared that it would be irresponsible to bail out struggling institutions, but John Gill argues that institutions are facing financial challenges beyond their control 

November 6, 2018

Universities are used to taking flak these days. In the UK’s case, some of this is self-inflicted – note the failure of leaders to grasp how toxic high executive salaries had become, or to respond effectively when they did.

Much more, though, stems from a febrile political atmosphere, in which universities have become a lightning rod for poorly defined but deeply felt antagonism towards society’s “elites”.

Whatever the cause, it is worth reflecting on how extraordinary it is that the very drivers of local and national economic health (not to mention our actual well-being) have been recast as the problem.

The latest salvo of unfriendly fire has focused on universities’ supposed refusal or inability to take value for money seriously, and the alleged mismanagement that is fuelling financial instability.

Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, has penned an article in The Telegraph newspaper in which he says that universities which are struggling financially will not receive a bailout, since “it would be irresponsible to give more public money to people who are demonstrably unable to manage their institution in a sustainable way”.

The headline (which, to be fair to Barber, he will not have written himself) states baldly: “We should allow bad universities to fail”.

A couple of points are worth making here. The first is that it is a huge leap to label struggling universities “bad” institutions. Define “bad”?

Situated in an area of the country with few local resources, a disadvantaged population, a lack of inward investment and without the pulling power to attract students from elsewhere in the UK or, indeed, from overseas?

And are those in difficulty necessarily led by people who are “demonstrably unable to manage their institution in a sustainable way”? Or are they, possibly, coping with all of the above, in addition to a decade of government policy which has remorselessly imposed market conditions on a sector that is ill-suited to such an approach, with the inevitable (and presumably desired) consequences?

John Gill is editor of Times Higher Education. 

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