Opinion : Stony silence about rocky finances

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The Independent Online
Six universities, MPs were told recently, are being monitored because their finances are rocky. At a time when most publicly funded bodies are struggling, the news barely caused a ripple. Yet the accompanying statement from the head of the universities' funding quango was extraordinary. Professor Graeme Davies, chief exectuive of the Higher Education Funding Council, declined to name any of the six even though he is so worried about one that it is having to make monthly returns.

Professor Davies agreed to submit a confidential memorandum to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee that would name names but chose to abide by the old convention that even if a university is close to bankruptcy, the public should not be told.

Why? The funding council dispenses more than £3.5bn of taxpayers' money a year. Thousands of students must decide which university to attend in ignorance of the information about to be handed to MPs.

The universities' defence of this secrecy goes like this. There are three funding council lists: one for universities whose condition is critical (at present four), one for those whose condition is still serious and a third for those that appear to be well. Since universities take action to remedy the council's criticisms and so move from one list to another, it would not be fair to publicise their plight. Two of the six mentioned by Professor Davies are, apparently, about to graduate from "critical" to "serious". It would also be unfair to name them, the argument continues, because publicity might hinder ability to improve their fortunes: people would be less willing to lend money, and students to attend them.

The truth is that universities have managed to preserve their secrecy far longer than any other part of the education service. The principle of accountability to the taxpayer unquestioningly accepted in schools has been slow to take root in higher education. Even the smallest primary school of 20 pupils or less is subject to inspection every four years and can be publicly declared to be failing. It is named in the national press and a report detailing every weakness must be published. Universities say they cannot remedy their failings in the glare of publicity but that is exactly what schools are asked to do. Failing schools have to produce action plans for all to see. Why can't failing universities, with bigger resources at their disposal do the same?

True, schools do not have commercial interests that might be jeopardised but their survival is still at stake in the new world of competition and market forces. Undoubtedly, some prosepective applicants may be put off by publicity about a university's difficulties in exactly the same way that pupils and parents may shun schools that receive critical inspection reports. But this must be balanced against the right of students to feel assured that the institution to which they are applying is well managed and that courses are not likely to shut down after their applications have been submitted. Professor Davies says the fact that only four out of 148 universities are in trouble is a source for congratulation but that is little comfort to their students and staff.

The funding council says it needs universities' forecasts to help in planning, and that they might be less willing to disclose information if struggling institutions were named. Is the council really suggesting universities will lie about their prospects?

The argument that universities go on and off the critical list is also disingenuous. The council admits that the four mentioned by Professor Davies have been in difficulties for some time.

The privilege of anonymity is outdated, and should be ended.