Lessons for the state sector

Why are the nation's happiest students at its only private university?
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Given all the grumbling from students over top-up fees, it came as a shock to hear last month that the most satisfied students in the UK are the ones paying the most.

In the Higher Education Funding Council of England's (HEFCE) National Student Survey, published last month, two institutions topped the tables: the Open University, and Buckingham, a private university that charges £10,000 a year for most of its courses.

Buckingham University, the only private university in the UK, has long been considered an anomaly in British education. Now other academics are asking themselves if they would be better off without the government's money.

Buckingham was set up 30 years ago as a challenge to the state monopoly of higher education in the UK. Until recently, there was no indication that it had fulfilled this aim, despite attracting heavyweight dons - often right-wing luminaries such as Professor Roger Scruton, who enjoy nothing better than giving the bird to the liberal consensus in the SCR. It is a small place, with less than 1,000 students, most coming from overseas and doing professional qualifications in law and business.

But it has been getting increasing recognition over the past few years, coming back into the Quality Assurance Agency after nearly a decade away and winning praise from Prince Charles and Tony Blair. The HEFCE's poll is its biggest boost. In a survey that revealed discontent with lecturers' performance across the state-education sector, Buckingham seemed to vindicate the economists who have argued that in education, as elsewhere, who pays the piper, plays the tune.

"I think this is a tipping point," says Dr Terence Kealey, the vice-chancellor of Buckingham since 2001 and an energetic architect of its recent good fortune. "This is an important message the survey has sent out: privatisation is good for education, good for universities, and good for students."

Buckingham manages much higher staff-to-student ratios than most. Dr Kealey puts it as one academic for every nine students. In the state sector, it is one for every 17. Money helps, but with government grants, university endowments and £3,000-a-year fees, state universities spend nearly the same.

Dr Kealey says attitude has a lot to do with it. "The money comes from students, so they're our customers," he says. "At other universities, the main customer is the government. It's a different culture. We work hard for them. Other universities don't." Dr Kealey says it is significant that the other top scorer in the poll was the OU, which he says is the only other institution that charges realistic fees. Both, he argues, share the culture of student as customer and put them first.

"It's a very genuine ethos within the university," says Alex Keeling, an MBA student at Buckingham. And an appropriate one, he adds, for a university that runs the UK's only service management programme under Indian HR pioneer VS Mahesh. Keeling left a job in the City to go back to university after two decades out of full time education. Having spent so long away from the lecture hall it was crucial to him that he could get as much contact with dons as possible. Given how much students pay at any university for an MBA class sizes can be surprisingly large, Keeling's has only 18 students in it.

"I was looking for an intimate education experience," he says. "I thought access to tutors was key."

Many academics would welcome the chance to spend more time with their students - and they think a private model such as Buckingham's is the way to do it. "This poll will make people take Buckingham more seriously," says Professor James Tooley, of Newcastle University. "If it continues to come top, it will make people think about privatisation."

Professor Tooley sees Buckingham as a trailblazer. He is in no doubt that Buckingham offers the best way to provide students with the best teaching. "If you compare the same student at Buckingham with one at another comparable university, where they will receive little or no tutorial attention, that student would do better at Buckingham," he says.

Academics at private universities have more time for their students because they don't have to report to the government about what they are doing, he believes. "The bureaucratic exercise of getting these things ready is huge - academics get caught up in it. Buckingham is not under that pressure." Without bureaucratic effort, however, you wouldn't have league tables.