Saturday, January 29, 2011

UDI for CU

Under the Labour government, the universities were prodded, poked and cajoled by ministers who were more concerned with diversity than academic rigour.

Under the Coalition, we have a debate at Cambridge University triggered by the ministerial plans to raise tuition fees.

Universities like Cambridge are world-class and they need world class funding.
One of the great counterfactual debates is what would have happened to higher education had the Tories won the 1997 General Election (it was not going to happen, not even a leader who had the compassion and integrity of Mother Theresa or charisma of Tony Blair could have finessed that one for blues). The plan was to use the money from the sale of the 3G to endow higher education bodies, taking the funding out of the hands of the state and put it under the control of the institutions themselves. Independence.

Getting institutions off the drip-feed of government grants is a good thing. Like cocaine addicts, their ruling bodies turn to ministers for the next cash high and a dependency culture takes hold. If you want other examples, there are NGO’s and charities complaining about government cuts because they have lost sight that role is to raise money from the public – not to take public money from the state. Similarly, business models that rely on government grants for the long term are also living off the fickle hands of ministers and their civil servants.

So where to now?

Reading the debate raging in Cambridge, this looks like a chance for those on left and right of the political spectrum to agree that extended government intervention in higher education is not a good thing; the universities need greater autonomy and, if necessary, complete independence from the state. Of course this is something that only the very successful universities can contemplate – they have the alumni and potential cash pots to make it happen – but it would be a good thing. Bring it on.

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