Freedom: The Bottom Line

By Tooley, James | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, May 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Freedom: The Bottom Line


Tooley, James, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


Not only are 'public' universities technically private, says James Tooley, but many are close to fiscal independence.

Commentators often distinguish between "private" universities, such as the University of Buckingham, and the rest, which are lazily thought of as "public". That distinction is increasingly untenable: "the rest" are all legally private, often corporations or, like the London School of Economics, companies limited by guarantee. But Times Higher Education and Grant Thornton's recent analysis of university accounts shows how tenuous the distinction is in terms of finance, too. This has implications for how universities should respond to the government's increasingly forceful attempts to regulate them.

Overall, less than a third (32.2 per cent) of university funding now comes direct from government in the form of funding council grants. Russell Group universities get even less - under a quarter. Adding in research council funding does not increase the percentage by much, and if we're concerned with how universities should position themselves in terms of dependence on government, then we need not include it, for private organisations can also receive research council funding, providing they register as Independent Research Organisations. Just because they access such funding doesn't make the Institute for Fiscal Studies or the British Trust for Ornithology, to name two of the 55 current IROs, any less independent of government.

What about "home" student fees? As far as universities are concerned, funding arrives from a private source, the Student Loans Company. But Buckingham can also receive this funding, so again, this need not compromise a university's independence.

The implications are huge. Not only are UK universities private organisations, but most of their funding is private too. And yet there is a huge difference between universities that do and do not accept funding council grants. Buckingham is entirely at liberty to set its fees and admission policies. Universities that take any government finance are supplicants to the Office for Fair Access, under the future tutelage of Les Ebdon. They have to be, even when Offa threatens to violate the principles that many believe are necessary for academic freedom, such as the ability to admit students based on academic criteria alone. …

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