The Spectator


Set Oxbridge free: the universities should no longer stand for government control

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If the Institute of Economic Affairs has a branch in the heavens, the surrounding clouds must be disturbed by a loud wailing sound emanating from the soul of Sir Keith Joseph. If any man had a reason to cry out about the unfairness of life, it is he. Pilloried in the early 1980s for daring to suggest that students ought to pay their own way at university, his earthly reputation now has to suffer the indignity of witnessing a Labour government proposing the same; and of seeing the policy delivered by one of the National Union of Students' bearded tendency.

Imagine the snorts of 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out! Out! Out!' which would have risen from the junior combination rooms, the speeches of red-blooded indignation which would have been delivered by Neil Kinnock had Sir Keith Joseph uttered these words circa 1984: 'Many young people do not think about taking out a loan or credit to buy a holiday or a car. But a holiday or a car are depreciating assets, unlike education which gives you a start in life.' In fact they were spoken on Sunday by Charles Clarke, a particularly strident president of the NUS back in the early 1970s, in order to justify the government's proposed policy of 'top-up' fees for students attending prestigious universities. If Mr Kinnock is quivering with rage behind his desk in Brussels, he isn't showing it; and while Clare Short is moaning as ever, the students themselves have barely been moved to rise from their beds.

Equally quiet so far has been Her Majesty's Opposition. Like an undergraduate with a lecture on differential calculus to attend, the Conservative party has pulled its duvet about its ears and is determined not to rise until the whole thing is over. Perhaps it is stunned by Labour's cheek; and the government's apparent conversion to the Conservative principle of self-reliance. It shouldn't be. There is plenty of opposition to be mounted to Labour's policy proposals on further education.

While we agree with the assertion by the higher education minister, Margaret Hodge, that under the present system uneducated dustmen are subsidising the education of doctors, there is nothing in the government's proposals which suggests that the principle of self-reliance will be extended to the providers of higher education, the universities. Far from it. When it was suggested to Charles Clarke that elite universities should simply declare independence from the state, he retorted that it would be a 'highly retrograde step'. The government wishes to shift the cost of higher education from state to consumer, but without relinquishing its increasingly bossy control of the universities.

There is a certain inevitability that a chancellor of the exchequer who is paying the bills for Oxford undergraduates should want to interfere in the selection of those students, as Gordon Brown attempted to do two years ago. It comes as no surprise, either, that ministers should want to impose ethnicity quotas on public universities, and that they have attempted to dismantle the Oxbridge tutorial system. For New Labour they are a lab for social engineering.

The universities - or at least those universities of a sufficient quality to survive in the free market - should no longer stand for government control. They should seize the opportunity and declare independence. Elite universities, as opposed to the former polytechnics, have done very badly from the years of state-subsidised higher education. Imperial College calculates the real annual cost of educating one of its students at £10,500. It receives just £7,700 from the government. Oxford says that the sum paid by the state to educate each student fell by 28 per cent between 1975 and 1988, and by a further 38 per cent between 1988 and the present. The result is corner-cutting, and the suppression of academic salaries to the point at which universities are haemorrhaging talented staff to commerce and to America. The typical professorial salary at a leading British university is now just £45,000 - the sort of salary their students can expect to earn about two years after graduation.

The assertion that it is only public money which allows talented but poor students to attend university is false. Oxford and Cambridge were educating poor students back in the 14th century, employing 'fetchers' to spot talent among the sons of poor north-country farmers. It is public money that has destroyed the scholarship system, under which the rich used to make a direct contribution to the education of the poor. It wasn't until the state began paying the tuition fees of poor students in 1962, and particularly when the then Labour government introduced universally free higher education in 1977, that dustmen began subsidising the education of doctors.

As Tim Luckhurst argued in these pages a fortnight ago, the legacy of a state-funded system has been more higher education but lower quality education. Public funding has damaged the good while creating dozens of poor-quality universities attempting to create academic disciplines out of vocational skills which industry happily used to teach on the job. There is a simple way to sort out the mess: release higher education to the free market and watch as good universities prosper and media-studies departments go to the wall.