Sunday, September 14, 2008

Universities should declare independence from government

Universities play a vital democratic role as a source of information independent of government spin and patronage. Unfortunately their independence in the UK has been undermined by the former Conservative government's Education Reform Act and by current ministers. They have also been pushed to promote wider government objectives such as greater social equality.

It is unsurprising that those responsible for so much of universities' income will seek to meddle in their affairs. Simon Jenkins describes the simple solution:

Universities must bite the bullet and charge their students what their courses cost. For the half who allegedly cannot afford this, the Treasury should be challenged to convert teaching grants to bursaries. For British universities to deny themselves the revenue base enjoyed by their American competitors is self-defeating. It denies the poor the financial help that might attract them into higher education so as to relieve the middle classes of paying their way.

The billions spent by the government on undergraduate teaching would have a much bigger impact on social mobility if redirected towards the schools and families of less well-off children. Why, after all, should poorer non-graduate taxpayers subsidise individuals who will realise private gains of hundreds of thousands of pounds during a career built on their first degree? Whether tuition fees are covered by larger student loans, charitable bursaries or a graduate tax is a secondary question.

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