Giving with One Hand and Taking with Two …
Friday 20thMay: The proposals in the Queen’s speech are cold comfort for great British universities which owe their excellence to freedom not bureaucratic control, writes John Marenbon.
These days legislation about the universities usually comes in a glossy free-market wrapping, but its contents are drably dirigiste. Just five years ago the Coalition transferred much of the financial cost for teaching from the state to students. They are now obliged to pay the full costs of cheaper, mainly humanities, courses and given loans to repay them. But instead of allowing a proper market, one where better universities could charge more for their courses, which may in fact cost more to provide in terms of teaching and other support, the government capped the fees. As a result almost every institution, from the most illustrious to the humblest, charges exactly the same.
Although these fees are supposedly private payments from customers (i.e. the students) to the universities, as providers of a service, the government has refused to stand aside. Rather it has used the threefold fee increase to exert greater control, by threatening to reduce the fees a university can charge unless it meets targets in admitting candidates from unprivileged backgrounds.
The new White Paper, with its predictably philistine title, Success as a Knowledge Economy, follows the same pattern. It will become easier for private institutions to gain university status and these new universities will be allowed to compete with existing ones, perhaps putting some of them out of business. But what appears to be a move to free up the market is accompanied by another extension of bureaucratic power. Universities will be assessed, not just on their research, but on their teaching, and those found wanting will be punished financially.
Despite the wrapping, the government does not merely seem to lack faith in the free market which it claims to be enabling (no one thinks that we need government checks to ensure Tesco gives value for money: when it doesn’t, the customers desert it for Sainsbury’s or Walmart). It is also half-hearted in promoting that market. A few more private institutions at the edges, probably geared to providing profitable vocational courses, will do no harm. What the real aim should be for a government which values freedom - both in the market, and in teaching and research - is to release the great universities from their bondage: Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, LSE, and others in the Russell Group.