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Giving with One Hand and Taking with Two…

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.

By contrast, recent governments treat the universities as adjuncts of the centrally planned and socially engineered state. No party, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour, has been immune from the malaise.

One real step towards freedom would be to remove the cap on fees, and allow the best universities to charge as much as the market will allow. Provision of loans for the extra fees could be left in principle to private providers. If the government wished, taxpayers’ money, could be used to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The universities would have to balance the need to raise fees in order to fulfill their aims, and the desire to curb fees so as to have the widest range of bright candidates.

An even easier, and equally important, step would be to allow the universities to choose which candidates to admit without imposing targets in the name of ‘fair access’. Genuinely fair access is based on academic ability and commitment, as judged by experienced academics. They are far better placed than a bureaucratic ‘czar’ to see the merits of a candidate and weed out those without a genuine desire for learning even if well-prepared by their schools. That in fact was roughly speaking the system of admissions in Oxford and Cambridge until recently. Academics are, as a rule, overburdened with social consciences, and so left to their own devices, the universities would probably continue to discriminate against those unfortunate enough to have been to a good school, but at least this trahison des clercs would be a voluntary one.

The hope for the long term should be that our great universities would once again become genuinely free, independent universities, like Princeton and Harvard, financing themselves through endowment, linked enterprises, fees and grants for particular projects. They have always chosen to support the able students who might otherwise not be able to afford a place. Already, our elite universities are independently financed to a great extent.

What the government needs to do is simple: stand aside.


Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in Cambridge. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy. A Very Short Introduction (2016). For Politeia he has written Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities (2018), co-published with New Direction, and Back to School! Preparation, Not Cancellation (2020) co-authored with Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and Dominic Sullivan.

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