Liberate the Universities

The state has subordinated intellectual purposes and diminished the freedom and independence that were once the hallmark of academic life.

Something is rotten in the state of academia, and for once it isn’t the academics. Though instantly accepted by a fissiparous coalition, Lord Browne’s much-trumpeted review not only is not the solution, it is the lethal parting shot of a man who has nursed a lifelong grievance against the Oxbridge-educated English elite: Gordon Brown. This is his revenge for the Laura Spence affair a decade ago. And it may become David Cameron’s biggest missed opportunity.

There are three glaring defects in the present system. First, it is failing to preserve our traditionally high standards of teaching and research. The best universities struggle to compete with their better-funded American counterparts, while at the other end of the scale students get a raw deal. Second, it is subordinating intellectual purposes to social engineering, even though the effect of this loss of integrity and autonomy has actually been a marked decline in social mobility. Finally, there has been an alarming rise in extremism on campus, often associated with the Islamic societies that now operate in most British universities. 

These defects are all symptoms of a single malaise: instead of the freedom and independence that were once the hallmark of academic life, the influence of the state over universities has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. The Browne review has been presented both by supporters and detractors as a radical scheme. But what Browne gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. The review promises to do away with four regulatory agencies, but proposes a new super-quango, the Higher Education Council, with draconian new powers to police everything from fees to admissions policies. The review proposes a system of loans to enable students to afford the new, higher levels of fees. But there will be no free market in these loans: the state will dictate everything. 

Politicians, of course, are focused on voters — the students and their families — but the leading universities are much more interested in research than teaching, and revenue from undergraduates is a diminishing aspect of their business. Thus Browne has very little to offer Oxford, for example. At present, an average undergraduate costs Oxford £16,000 a year. Of this, the student fee amounts to just over £3,000 and the state chips in £5,000. The remaining £8,000 comes from the university’s other income streams. Under Browne, universities would be penalised by a levy on fees above £6,000, rising to a penal level. So in practice the most that Oxford could charge would be £12,000, of which it would receive only £9,000. The loss of 80 per cent of the state subsidy for teaching undergraduates means that Oxford would be only £1,000 better off under Browne than it is at present — not enough to enable it to compete with US universities that charge two or three times as much, and enjoy endowments several times as large as Oxford’s. Browne pays mere lip service to the global marketplace in which not only universities but also students now exist. Cambridge, in a similar predicament, is reported to have delivered an ultimatum to ministers. If the Browne plan, including the levy on fees, becomes law, Cambridge may simply go private. Oxford, the LSE and others may be tempted to follow suit.

Unless the best British universities are given the same independence as their American competitors, the brain drain that is already under way will accelerate for the reasons given by Mara Delius in this issue. The ablest British students will go to more prestigious American universities which offer “needs blind” places for the best and brightest from all over the world. If Cameron and Osborne do not seize their chance to break the state’s monopoly power over supply and demand, British universities will become backwaters: overcrowded, mediocre, bureaucratic, with no ability to resist radicalisation. As Ruth Dudley Edwards (Counterpoints) shows in the case of University College London, weak university administrators are squeamish about confronting the Islamists who are splitting the campus into the terrorists and the terrorised. Unlike dons, students are all too aware of this obscurantism. 

The government now has a unique opportunity to set students, universities and alumni free to pursue Matthew Arnold’s “disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world”. Students should be free to pay for their education in a way they choose, with assistance for those who need it. Universities should be free to teach and research what they see fit, at a price the market will bear. Alumni should be free to give back to their alma mater under a philanthropic tax regime. The politics may be fiendishly complex, but the principle has what Disraeli called the “sweet simplicity of the three per cents”.

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