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John Glen MP: Universities must start taking practical steps towards self-sufficiency

JGJohn 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 universities.


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