Susan Bassnett: It's time for the bold universities to go private

Another of my friends is retiring this summer. She works in one of the many countries where university lecturers all retire at the age of 60, but she will certainly not be giving up teaching or research. She is moving to one of the many private universities that cream off talent from the state sector, either by offering higher salaries and better working conditions or by taking on top-flight academics when they hit the age barrier. Other friends who have done this all say they wish they had moved years ago.

Here in the UK, we have not encouraged private higher education. There is only one private university, Buckingham, set up in the 1970s. But a sea change is afoot, barely noticed in the media and not trumpeted by the Government, which is sticking to its mantra about how expansion of higher education has led to huge improvements in quality, despite all the evidence from those who teach in universities to the contrary.

That sea change is a gradual process of movement towards private provision, a tacit recognition that the amount of state funding being put into universities is not enough. Over the past few years, fees have risen and student debt is rocketing. My daughter owes more than £12,000, which is apparently on the low side, though it doesn't look like that as she completes an MSc and searches for a job and somewhere to live.

University managers talk cheerfully about the point when the cap will come off fees, and they will be able to charge a great deal more for an undergraduate degree. We have yet to see what more will be provided by cash-strapped universities for those higher fees. No obvious changes were discernible when the first phase of fees was put in place, nor when that rose to the current level. Class sizes have gone on increasing, student contact hours have diminished, research time has declined and I doubt whether any academic who has been in a university for more than a decade could honestly say that anyone gets better value for money since fees came in. No one in government wants to think about the fallout from the prospect of raising the £3,000 fee cap, so instead universities are exhorted to get out and raise money from private sources – from alumni, business, industry, and high fee-paying students who fail to gain entry to decent institutions in their own countries.

Universities are all rushing into the business of fund-raising, setting up development offices and sending vice-chancellors out with begging bowls. Some money is trickling in, but nothing like the much-vaunted US example.

Research shows that there is deep seated resistance to making private contributions to state-funded organisations such as universities in the UK. Comparisons with the US are pointless – Americans invest capital in their former university because they can be certain that there will not be endless state interference. Here in the UK, about the only thing you can be certain of is that the state will interfere – in who is taught, what is taught and how it is taught. This level of interference impedes innovation and creative thinking. No wonder we have difficulty filling academic posts in certain subjects and suffer from a massive brain drain of talent.

But changes are afoot. In 2006, the College of Law, a private, specialist institution, was given degree-awarding powers. Last autumn, the BPP College became the first commercial enterprise to offer higher degrees in law and business. These ventures have been approved by the Quality Assurance Agency. Other bids are in the pipeline from other companies. Meanwhile, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has approved the development of courses up to the equivalent of A-level by three companies, McDonald's, Flybe and Network Rail. A trend similar to that seen in the health service is apparent – privatisation is creeping in, aided by government, even as ministers try to conceal the fact that it is happening.

It is highly likely that private providers will offer an excellent service. Across the world, private universities have flourished, often for a very long time. On the Continent there has been a proliferation of private universities, some of which are extremely good and have attracted first-class academic staff and high quality students. It is, perhaps, not so far-fetched to think that some of the bolder UK universities may soon raise enough money to stick two fingers up to government and set off down the private path, knowing that they would be in good company internationally and could finally offer students a quality education. But at what cost to the system?

The writer is pro vice chancellor of the University of Warwick

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss