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Education, education and more education

Paul Woodgates, Mike Boxall
The Times, page 39
6 November 2009

Sir, The Government’s higher education framework risks creating a contradiction in policy towards universities (“Give students more money, universities told”, Nov 4). On the one hand, the Government expects universities to act as vehicles for its policy goals for social inclusion, skills and competitiveness. On the other, it is encouraging them to be more commercially enterprising and less dependent on public funding.

It is entirely appropriate that public funding for universities should be tied to policy priorities. But it does not follow that Government should define the missions and roles of our independent universities or specify how they should carry out those roles. Public funding represents a little over half of the £23 billion annual earnings of UK universities. Falling levels of government funding, and the rising costs of meeting the associated expectations, would ensure the early demise of any university that relied entirely on them.

Public grants are increasingly being substituted by revenues earned from research, teaching and other services sold in competitive international markets. Many universities are doing well in this competition — by definition, meeting discriminating business and individual needs.

It is not clear why the Government imposes requirements on universities with regard to selected groups of students and employers, while the needs of others are effectively satisfied through competition among a range of alternative suppliers. Tying government funding to declared policy outcomes, and encouraging universities (and others) to contract to deliver those outcomes would tap the enterprise and innovation that universities are showing elsewhere. This in turn would stimulate the wide-reaching reforms of tertiary education to which the framework aspires.

Paul Woodgates
Mike Boxall
PA Consulting Group

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