Should universities be left to sink or swim
19 Feb 2008 The Guardian
Sending in the experts
Should universities be left to sink or swim, asks Mike Baker
Tuesday February 19, 2008
There is an equally strong argument about protecting taxpayers' money. Failure in higher education is just as serious for the economy as it is in schools. The 2006 government-commissioned Leitch review underlined how critical graduate-level skills are to Britain's competitiveness.
Yet the government has held back from sending in "task forces" to campuses. Admittedly, no university has been found to be "failing" in quite the same way as schools. Yet is that mainly because higher education does not have the equivalent of Ofsted inspections or government examination targets to identify which universities are the under-achievers?
Or is it simply that governments cannot touch universities because they are autonomous bodies? Although universities are legally independent corporate institutions, not unlike commercial companies, they are in other ways quite unlike businesses. No university has been allowed to go bust or to close, although there have been mergers and some departments have been closed. Indeed, some subject departments receive extra protection because they are of national strategic importance.
At last week's Guardian HE summit, several speakers predicted universities face a "bumpy ride". Professor Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, warned that universities would have to "operate much more in the marketplace". Presumably that could bring with it the risk of market failure? Others warned that universities would have to be more like businesses to survive and "find new products, in new markets, with new types of staff".
Why all this gloom? First, we are heading towards a substantial demographic downturn in the number of home students. Second, global competition for international students and research contracts is getting much more intense. In the past, growth has come right across the sector from the steady increase in both UK and overseas student numbers. Neither can be taken for granted in the decade ahead.
So the big issue confronting all universities is how to achieve a niche in the sector. If you cannot compete in research, do you become a teaching only institution? Or do you put the emphasis on employer engagement and become a "business-facing" university?
The recent annual government grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council in England told universities they must embrace "cultural change" and a period of "experimentation". While most in higher education seem to accept that the sector will have to have much more differentiation, the majority are insistent that research and teaching must go together: that is what makes a university a university.
Meanwhile, commercial bodies are circling: the private company BPP is already offering postgraduate degrees and, if the fee levels were right, has said it would consider entering the undergraduate market.
If others follow and competition for home students becomes more intense, while international recruitment gets tougher as places like China and Malaysia start recruiting international students, some universities could well struggle. Then the government will have to decide whether it will step in to deal with failure, as it does in schools and the NHS, or whether it shrugs and says "sorry, but that's the marketplace, there's nothing we can do to save you".