An enduring blue privilege

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It is almost certainly true that the Government does not pay sufficient to Oxford and Cambridge universities and their Colleges for the education that those institutions currently provide. But before the issue gets elevated to too high a plane of moral indignation I think it best to remember that the government does currently provide approximately pounds 2,000 per year per student more in the form of college fees to those universities than it provides to any other university in the country.

These college fees are not means tested and are provided directly via the Department of Education not via the Higher Education Funding Council; they are not subject to the normal audit and assessment procedures which attempt to determine value for money and other similar estimates of return to the taxpayer. This is a scandal, not because Oxford and Cambridge should not be encouraged to provide whatever kind and style of education that they wish but because they alone have been able to charge these "top-up" fees and have been able to persuade the Government to pay them in full on behalf of all Oxbridge students.

I happen to think, and this is a very personal opinion, that the elite tutorial-based style of education (which is what these "top-up" fees buy) is inefficient. It produces a worryingly parochial and self-indulgent kind of elite, probably inadequate to the needs of the 21st century. But I could be wrong - after all I am a product of the system myself. What makes me so cross is that special back-door deals of this kind have prevented a proper debate on the funding of higher education as a whole.

The truth is that all students are having a hard time - except those few whose parents are both rich and generous - and no university in the country feels itself to be properly funded and all of them are probably right. The consequence is that the Higher Education Funding Councils do the best they can and act like any other centralised bureaucratic control system would to control central expenditure by inventing ever more complex ( and ultimately self-defeating, as in the USSR) regulatory procedures. These instil a common compliance culture in our universities which if continued for much longer will sap the academic freedoms which alone make any university worth having. It is thus not Oxbridge alone that is in grave danger of providing an education that will be seen as irrelevant or inappropriate for the 21st century, but the university system as a whole.

The solution is, as many in all political parties are beginning to recognise, to denationalise our universities; to abolish the Higher Education Funding Councils and to establish a direct link between the students, the tuition fees that they pay and the institutions to which they pay them. The government still has a vital role of course, but it is the enabling one of ensuring that talented students, whatever their age and whatever their circumstances, can obtain the scholarships needed to ensure that they receive the education and training their talents deserve. Only in this way can there ever, even in principle, be a distribution of resources which may reflect the information we have about what may truly be needed in the future, rather than relying on the historically determined prejudices of Oxbridge.

John Ashworth

John Ashworth is Director of the London School of Economics