Debate on Higher Education
Robert Skidelsky
Hansard | Wednesday, June 14, 2000

My Lords,
Debates in Parliament on the state of the public services usually revolve round a single topic: money. Whatever the service is, it gets too little money, its problems would be solved if it got more money, the government of the day, be it Labour or Conservative, is iniquitous in denying it more money.
In the case of higher education, this threnody for impoverishment is usually coupled with another: the lament for vanished independence. Universities and their teachers complain of a growing weight of regulation. They are constantly being assessed for their research and teaching capacities often, it seems by methods borrowed from the archives of STASI, but which in reality are the methods of bureaucracies the world over. According to the results of these assessments money is allocated to them by organisations known only by their acronyms.
It should not be beyond the wit of university teachers, still the cleverest profession in the land, to work out the connection between money and independence. Admittedly, the connection has grown a lot tighter in recent years. In the old days, the Exchequer paid up, leaving the universities ‘get on with it’. This ‘hands off’ convention, for it was never more than a convention, was a typically English substitute for a constitution.
These days are long past. Governments have become relatively poorer, and they have to pay for increasing numbers of students. Since 1980 we have expanded higher education spending by some 45% in real terms, while shrinking expenditure per head of the student population by 40%. Students are less well taught by teachers who are less well paid.
Moreover, a poor paymaster will always be a hard taskmaster. Decreased funding is directly linked to increased control, as governments try to squeeze more value for money out of a shrinking unit of resource. And worse still: if the government pays, why should it not tell the universities who to admit and what to teach? In future, grants to the so-called elite universities are to be tied, so we are told, to their success in achieving the government’s preferred social mix. So the noose is steadily tightened.
My Lords, the Chancellor’s recent clumsy attempt to make a class war issue of Oxford’s selection system impels us to focus on the real issue in this debate: which is not money but independence. Should universities be regarded as autonomous institutions or as agents of the state? This question is constitutional; it is about the way power is distributed. The question ‘What is to be done?’ matters less, in this instance, than the question ‘Who is to decide what is to be done?’
For anyone who stands for university autonomy, for anyone who believes that in the institutions of civil society lie the best protection of individual freedom, there can be only one answer: universities must wean themselves off their present dependence on the state. That also happens to be the surest way to replenish their own coffers.
What would this involve in practice? It would mean, above all, that universities would set tuition fees at any level their markets would take. The right to charge a market price for your services is a fundamental condition of a free economy and a free society.It was only in the Communist world that such rights were systematically denied.
The predictable response is that any step in this direction will deny young people from poor families access to university education. There is something wrong with this argument. . There is no reason why the borrowing power of poor students should be any less than that of better-off ones. A university degree confers an earnings advantage which cumulates to £400,000 on average over a working lifetime, irrespective parental background. To secure such a return on most investments one would have to borrow £100,000. By comparison, to borrow £30,000 for investment in a university education is an astoundingly good buy.
That’s not the end of the story. For various technical reasons, banks would need to be insured against the risk of default. And both the government and universities might wish to provide bursaries to ease the passage of poorer students into the new system. Governments would continue to finance research of national importance. And simple changes in the charity laws would enable the universities to tap large additional sums of private money, as they do in the United States.
However, none of this will come to pass unless some universities are prepared to go to the government and say ‘Unless we can agree a new a constitutional settlement, between the universities as a whole and the state, we will renounce the block grant altogether, and resume our freedom of action’.
Integral to any such settlement would be a ‘charter of freedom’, which would include the right to set fees without penalties, the right to retain absolute control of their own admissions, and the right to regulate their own standards. .
Will any of the universities have the courage to do this? Probably about half a dozen of the top universities could do it, if they could agree on a policy, agree to pool their resources, and agree to launch a massive appeal for an Independence Fund. Unless some such effort is made the universities will never escape from their present state of slow strangulation.
My Lords, it is one thing to sell your birthright for a mess of pottage. But when the mess is too mean to nourish life, it is time to remember what your birthright was, and start on the difficult task of reclaiming it.