James Forsyth

Political meddling is putting universities’ independence at risk

Political meddling is putting universities' independence at risk
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If I was the vice-chancellor of Oxford, I’d be thinking about an urgent fundraising campaign that would allow the university to go private. Chris Heaton-Harris’s letter yesterday was dumb. A request for information on who lectures about Brexit and for links to their lecture materials made on House of Commons letterhead was bound to look intimidating. But David Lammy’s letter to Oxford, co-signed by the shadow Education Secretary and the Tory chair of the Education Select Committee, is even more of an assault on university independence.

Lammy not only wants Oxford to do more to fix the deficiencies of the school system but also to move to ‘centralised admissions’. Such a move would be a disaster. It would undermine the very nature of the college system. It would break the vital link between those who admit the students and those who teach them. This link is one of the reasons why Oxford has such a low drop-out rate.

The actions of Heaton-Harris and Lammy show the independence of universities in Britain is now under threat. Add to this Lord Adonis’s bull in a china shop attitude to vice chancellor’s salaries and tuition fees and it’s clear that the political appetite for interference in universities is on the increase. If universities want to safeguard themselves against this, then the way to do that is to go fully private—as James Tooley argued in the magazine recently.

Our universities are one of Britain’s greatest success stories. We have the two best universities on the planet, according to the Times Higher Education World University rankings, and five of the top 25. Yet our political class seem remarkably unappreciative of this achievement. Too many of them want to interfere in ways that would undermine these institutions. It is time for them to put themselves beyond the reach of these meddling politicians.