Should top independent schools set up a new private university on the lines of American liberal arts colleges, providing high-quality teaching, a broad curriculum and charging full fees?
The proposal, floated by Terence Kealey, Vice-Chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, may delight a possible incoming Tory government. It may attract parents who are used to paying high school fees as well as those who are afraid that their offspring are being squeezed out of university by poorer applicants Applications from the poorest groups are up by nearly one-third this year.
But the idea will appal anyone interested in improving social mobility. A growing pile of reports shows how entrenched unfairness is in Britain. Private schools give access to top universities and are the way the rich secure privilege into the next generation. Expensive private universities, feeding rich students into graduate courses – something poorer students cannot afford – would dig divisions deeper. Still, there is something here that might be built on. Dr Kealey cites independence from government as one reason for his plan. Freedom from political interference is vital for universities. Public money comes with strings and right now, thanks to London Metropolitan University, there are worrying signs of strings being tightened.
For the moment, British universities are more independent that most others in the world, including American state universities. To suggest otherwise is mischievous. Even "private" universities like Harvard receive a lot of government money from tax breaks, research grants and student support.
But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and top independent schools with their impressive social networks could be useful allies in the defence of university autonomy if they could bring their clout to bear without worsening inequality of opportunity. Crises create opportunities. While universities are worried that cuts will limit opportunities for poorer students, fee-charging schools are getting nervous. They are under pressure to account for the public benefit they provide to those who can't afford their fees and to show that what they do fits with the charitable intentions of their founders.
So, let's suppose two or three of the most famous fee-charging schools – perhaps those with the biggest endowments and the highest prestige – became universities. They could do so by merging with existing universities to provide new opportunities not for the rich but for poorer students.
Take Winchester. The university in Winchester is pioneering a broader undergraduate curriculum. Winchester College is an ancient and distinguished school. Its beautiful buildings would make a fine university campus. The school has a high academic reputation and expertise in post-16 teaching.
Together they could develop a new type of institution. It might offer a broad foundation degree andundergraduate curriculum designed to overcome social disadvantage by teaching soft skills – team work, presentation and so on – while giving students a broad liberal education. Vocational skills could be bolted on throughout life as the demands of work change.
Winchester University has degree-awarding powers. Its students are entitled to loans and grants. It gets public funding like any other university, it is a charity and it has control of its own admissions. It has the freedom to innovate. Winchester College is master in its own house so long as it sticks to charitable purposes.
It would be exciting to see them work together. Lustre would be added to the less glamorous end of higher education at minimal cost to the taxpayer. Great educational institutions whose charitable purpose has become problematic could find a new purpose. The divisiveness of these great schools might be mitigated. At least it would be a more creative response to economic crisis and social immobility than trench warfare and whingeing.
The writer is the former editor of Times Higher Education