Education: View From Here - Leave the money on the stump

Too much centralised decision making, however progressively inclined it is, will only inhibit creativity and diminish diversity
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The Independent Online
A GRAND principle, crumbling for years, has finally been conceded. The principle is that universities should be free to spend the money they receive from the Government without political interference.

According to the classical theory, politicians had no influence over how universities spent their money. A visiting American scholar conjured up the delightful metaphor of the tree-stump. The Government left the money on the tree-stump and went away. A little later the universities came along and picked it up. The tree-stump, of course was the once revered University Grants Committee (UGC), abolished,in the Thatcherite purges of the Eighties.

Of course, it was never quite as hands-off as the tree-stump metaphor suggested. The government had its own ways of influencing the UGC and, through the UGC, the universities, not least by setting the overall level of the university grant. And, of course, the big decisions, such as the establishment of new universities and the creation of the polytechnics in the Sixties were always political. But the freedom of the universities, buffered by the UGC, was not a chimera. Civil servant assessors were asked to leave UGC meetings when individual universities were discussed. In the first great budget cuts, in 1981, the UGC made up its own mind about which universities to protect and which to squeeze, informing the Government of the outcome only hours before the public announcement.

Contrast this golden time of university freedom with today's age of iron. Rumour has it that the latest letter from the Department for Education and Employment to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, telling the HEFCE how it should tell universities to spend the extra money made available by the Government was gone through line-by-line by the Secretary of State, David Blunkett. True or false, members of the HEFCE board were left with the impression that they had no choice but to earmark the grant in ways prescribed by the Government.

Does it matter that universities are no longer free to spend their money without political interference? No and Yes. No, because as great national institutions, universities should serve national purposes. They should be cajoled into making a proper contribution to achieving the Government's goal of a "Learning Age"; they should be encouraged to reach out to disadvantaged individuals, and social groups excluded from higher education in the past; they should be required to maintain high academic standards and make their courses relevant to contemporary needs; and they should be accountable for the - now very large - sums of public money they receive.

Yes, because too much centralised decision making, however progressively inclined, will inhibit creativity and diminish diversity. Karl Popper warned long ago in The Poverty of Historicism that "it is easy to centralise power, but impossible to centralise all that knowledge which is distributed across many individual minds, and whose centralisation would be necessary for the wise wielding of centralised power".

In the present age of "initiativitis" and earmarked funding, the cracks have all been filled in where "unauthorised" creativity flourished. But there is another worry. As the old autonomy - or irresponsibility - of the universities has shrunk, the effect has not only been to inject political priorities into university funding (which I support) but also to politicise the rival claims among universities (which I don't).

A good example is the aftermath of the Government's decision to abolish Oxford and Cambridge college fees. Blatant lobbying has forced the Government to give Oxford and Cambridge most of the money back. Perhaps as a result of this politicisation of university funding an interesting pattern is developing. Extra money is flowing in two directions - to the "old" universities, and especially members of the Russell Group, because they will benefit disproportionately from the planned investment in research infrastructure; and to institutions apparently best placed to help widen participation. Because this Government, like all its predecessors, believes, for a jumble of social justice and manpower planning reasons that priority should be given to expanding sub-degree courses, much of the latter may flow out of the higher education system and into further education colleges, which seem to offer better value for money.

Such a result was fairly easy to predict. The top dozen universities still have immense insider clout, despite their battering during the Thatcher years, so they had to be given something. The Government, instinctively more sympathetic to further than to higher education, was bound to put its own spin on lifelong learning. But, as a result, the middle mass of the universities, essentially the bottom two-thirds of the "old" universities and many of the "new" universities, is in danger of being left out. They are never going to be international research players; nor can they compete with the open-door populism of further education (For a start, they have to worry about academic standards, still implied in the idea of "higher" education).

Yet this middle mass is the bedrock of the system, teaching most students and responsible for the bulk of research. So far it is getting a poor - or a poorer - deal.