John Glen is the Member of Parliament for Salisbury. Follow John on Twitter.
Last month, I published Completing
the Reform, Freeing the Universities under the auspices of the Free
Enterprise Group of MPs. The paper identified four main challenges currently
facing UK universities: insecure long term funding; international competition;
unnecessary bureaucracy; and government influence over research.
In order to address these, the paper suggested that
universities need greater freedom: financially, in defining their own research
agendas, in determining their own access policies, and in setting differential
fee levels and more flexible student support arrangements.
The approach this government has taken to the universities
sector is fundamentally different from the previous government. Whereas Labour
focused on arbitrary targets and capped student numbers, the Coalition
government has consistently focussed on creating quality opportunities for
students and bolstering autonomy for the higher education sector.
Completing the Reform, Freeing the Universities seeks to
reinforce and reinvigorate the overall narrative of moving towards
self-sufficiency, and greater institutional independence. These ideas were
aimed at government, and hope that they might contribute to the agenda of a
future Conservative majority government. However, reform will not just happen
as a consequence of legislative action by government.
University Vice-Chancellors can undertake internal reforms
themselves to strengthen the higher education sector. What are the practical
routes to self-sufficiency for universities?
I want to suggest three: re-engaging alumni, expanding student
numbers and new markets, and remaining internationally competitive.
First, any self-sufficiency in the universities sector must
involve the development of a culture of giving. This concept was revived in
2007-2010 with the matched funding scheme which led to a huge increase in the
number of individual donors and generated over half a billion pounds of matched
funding. Universities should focus on re-engaging alumni, enabling them to feel
that they have a stake in their previous institution and that they can have a
role in contributing to and shaping its future. Whilst matched funding may not
be affordable now, the promotion of alumni involvement in giving may be
incentivised through the tax system in time but all universities should look to
embed this mindset from the day a place is accepted at their institutions.
Second, universities could expand students numbers – but not
by watering down a UK offering, but by seeking to expand overseas. Already in
the independent school sector, Sherborne, Harrow, and Dulwich College have
opened schools overseas, catering to the worldwide demand for the unique
character of education in the UK. Why could this not happen in the universities
sector? It could represent an ideal export field if Vice-Chancellors could see it
as an opportunity to expand and generate new income streams whilst not altering
the quality of education offered to “home” students on UK campuses or creating
immigration challenges for the UKBA.
Third, universities must focus on remaining internationally
competitive. Rather than relying on prestige sustained by attracting high
levels of research funding for post-graduate work, academics must continue to
focus on delivering high quality teaching to undergraduates in order to remain
at the forefront of higher education in a global marketplace.
Some may see this as an unrealistic agenda, that
universities could never – or ought never to – be self-sufficient and
independent from government. Yet the government has embarked on a radical
agenda of expanding alternative providers of higher education, conferring
university status on a number of new institutions such as the College of Law,
and Regent’s College. These providers are showing that it is possible to be a
private university, providing high-quality teaching of value to undergraduates.
It is reasonable to expect that there will be increasing competition from this
new sector of independent providers.
Universities should seize the opportunity to compete with an
expanding range of providers both at home and across the world, to provide the
best choice to students. It is often said that UK contains some of the best
universities in the world and the quality of our offer is respected globally.
Now is the time for the universities to contribute to the growth agenda and
meet the demand that exists in the BRIC economies and beyond for a quality
university education from established and universally respected British