The Big Question: Should we encourage independent schools to set up a private university?

Why are we asking this now?

A group of leading independent schools is studying plans to set up an elite private university modelled on American liberal arts colleges, which concentrates on high-quality teaching for undergraduates rather than research. The idea has come from Professor Terence Kealey, vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham, Britain's only private university, who believes that the existence of another independent higher education institution would be good for students and good for the university system. Increasingly universities are being criticised for the quality of their teaching and for discriminating against children from private schools, he says.

Does it stand a chance of getting off the ground?

The plan, which is at an early stage, is being considered by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), which includes the top independent schools such as Eton, Winchester and St Paul's.

One of the big problems is that millions of pounds are required to establish a university. Approaches have been made to at least two philanthropists about meeting the start-up costs. It is even being suggested that foreign tycoons might be interested in backing it. The HMC would provide the governing body for a new university and help to design the curriculum, and Kealey is inquiring about locating it at Wye College, a former agricultural college in Kent now owned by Imperial College London.

Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's, says: "I would fully support such a university, but it has to have a massive endowment. What you have here is an embryonic version of Harvard and Yale." So, there is nothing to stop such an institution coming into being, except money.

How much would it cost to set up?

To establish a top-flight research-intensive university from scratch complete with an endowment to provide scholarships for poorer students would cost an estimated £200m, which is a significant amount of money. But you could start the idea as a pilot on a small scale under the auspicies of another institution and that would cost £25m. It is thought the smaller sum could be raised from rich alumni. Initially it could be housed on the Buckingham campus before separating itself and applying for a royal charter.

Would such a university provide places for the increasing number of applicants who can't get in to higher education?

In theory, yes. The government has announced £900m of cuts over three years and Michael Arthur, the chairman of the Russell Group of universities, has said, "It will take just six months to bring Britain's higher education system to its knees." This might be hyperbolic but the fact is that universities are suddenly facing a bleak future after years of plenty. The latest figures from UCAS, the university admissions service, show that applications for autumn 2010 are up by 22 per cent, suggesting a serious squeeze on places. Another university would mean more places. But, in practice, a new private university would charge fees of more than £10,000 a year, and would not be accessible to families who could not afford this.

We already have one private university – why do we need another?

Many people would say we don't. The University of Buckingham, whose foundation stone was laid by Margaret Thatcher, has an avowedly libertarian outlook and has become a refuge for academics who don't fit happily into the state-funded university system. Created as a liberal arts college, it comes top of the national student satisfaction league table but has been criticised for its student population of well-heeled young people whose parents can afford the £8,000 a year fees.

As Buckingham's vice chancellor, Kealey has been a lone voice, even a bit of a pariah. With another private university, Buckingham would come in from the cold. Kealey would be able to claim more confidently that the state monopoly of higher education has been well and truly broken. He believes that Buckingham would do better if it had the challenge and stimulus of a competitor. It would also make it easier for him to argue to be allowed to join the research assessment exercise.

What advantage does private funding give a university?

The institution doesn't have to rely on government for its cash, which means it is stronger and more able to weather the bad times like we are seeing at the moment. It is psychologically independent of government, as well. It does not have to comply with government edicts on taking more children from certain postcodes, socio-economic groups or schools; it does not have to bother with laying on courses for industry; nor does it have to abide by new notions of having outsiders on the governing body. "The success of Harvard and Yale is that they're not government institutions," says Stephen. Certainly America's Ivy League universities come top of the international league tables and their quality is correlated to their independence. Many other countries in the world have successful private universities.

Why are independent schools well placed to set up a private university?

A new private university would need to establish its excellence fast and Kealey believes that independent schools can help with this because of their stellar international reputation. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has long confirmed that UK private schools come top of the global competition, according to Kealey. They could guarantee the quality of a new private university because they treat students as clients. They teach seriously and with commitment, unlike many state-funded universities, he says.

What's in it for the schools?

They are interested in any idea to do with the protection and promotion of independence, according to Jeff Lucas, general secretary of HMC. Until recently the schools would have viewed such an idea askance but recent events, particularly the cuts and the pressure on universities have created a new environment. "It's moved from being a wacky idea to becoming an interesting proposal that is worthy of serious discussion," says Lucas. HMC is concerned about what it calls the politicisation of the admissions process. "We believe that universities are trying to do a decent and honest job under severe pressure both overt and covert from government," he says.

Wouldn't the opening of another private university provoke charges of elitism?

Yes, but Kealey counters that any new private university in Britain would have to take students on a completely "needs blind" basis like the Ivy Leagues do. That means admitting students according to merit alone and giving them the funds to come. That way the university would be truly excellent and would not turn away any student who deserved to get in.

Wouldn't a new private university introduce a market in higher education?

Yes...

* It would mean higher fees, which would mean it will be stuffed full of dim but rich young people

* It would mean more competition and the furtherance of the idea that students are consumers

* The British system has tried to be classless. A new private university will turn the clock back

No...

* Students would be taken regardless of their ability to pay, so it would not be elitist

* It would be free of government control and able to pursue excellence at the expense of political correctness

* Emphasising teaching over research gives students the quality of teaching they had at independent school

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