Thursday, 5 January 2012

An even newer University Challenge

You may have seen via the BBC that David Willetts has announced a Government ambition to create more universities. The text of his speech is here, and the critical paragraphs are these ones:

Globalisation is still at its early stages when it comes to Higher Education. The next round of new institutions may well link existing British universities with international partners. The surge in international investment in science and technology would make this a key part of the mission of a new foundation. It might be that today’s institutions propose a new campus or a new international partnership. Or it might be new providers wanting to enter with different models. Today I can announce therefore that the Coalition is inviting proposals for a new type of university with a focus on science and technology and on postgraduates. Local economic partnerships, universities, businesses and international partners can come together to put forward proposals for new institutions.
There will be no additional Government funding. This time we will be looking to private finance and perhaps sponsorship from some of the businesses that are keen to recruit more British graduates. For example, we will not be diverting funding from support for undergraduate students. It is an opportunity to seize the new freedoms which we proposed in our White Paper last year. We already have a lot of interest and we want to move this to the next level. As proposals are developed we will be able to identify any specific obstacles that need to be removed including by legislation where necessary. A major city might wish to offer a site as Mayor Bloomberg has just done so successfully with his competition for a new graduate school in New York. We will be discussing with the interested organisations how best to carry this initiative forward. I am confident that with ingenuity we can grow our research base and our universities even when times are tough.
As the Minister himself acknowledges, there have been a lot of these new university initiatives in the past - although he namechecks only the older ones up to and including the polytechnics. Some of the more recent efforts have been less than successful. One thinks of the last Government's New University Challenge, which petered out for lack of funding, or the Mayor of London's plan for an Olympic Park university, which never even got that far. Clearly, though, the Minister's reference to 'interested organisations' must refer to specific parties so he must expect responses to the invitation when it is published. I'll make three points about this.
Firstly, I don't believe that major research universities anywhere in the world are sustained without a great deal of Government funding. If funds are not to be diverted from support for Undergraduate students, these new institutions must be a threat to the existing research institutions who stand to see Research Council or HEFCE R funds diverted. Sure enough the Russell Group has already responded less than warmly to the idea.
Secondly, as I've said previously here and here, the private sector just doesn't seem to be very interested in the White Paper's original vision of competition in the FT undergraduate market. The Minister may talk about the new freedoms in the White Paper but I can't really see any connection between a White Paper that said nothing about either research or postgraduates and a new initiative apparently to be devoted to both.
Thirdly, if legislation is really going to be necessary for the partnership the Minister has in mind, the scope to get these new institutions up and running within this Parliament must be limited.
There was one other item in the Minister's speech relating to our top-ranked universities. I'll try to blog on that shortly. The rest was mostly science-policy stuff which I will leave to others more expert.

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