Higher education funding is not the stuff of political headline grabbing, but in the so-called “knowledge economy” of the 21st century, this is an area where, if we give the universities the freedom to pursue excellence beyond the constraints of the quangocracy, we can restore our former pre-eminence.
The Wrong Idea of a University
The other element of the equation is to ensure equality of access by operating what the Americans call a “needs blind” admission system. That is to say, universities such as Harvard and Stanford choose their students on the basis of ability. Once the selection process is complete, those admitted are means-tested and they pay whatever proportion they can afford of the fee (which at a top university may be more than $40,000 a year). The American system effectively means that the less well-off are subsidised by a combination of the very well-off, who pay the full fee, and the substantial endowments that universities have built up over the years. Oxford and Cambridge have such endowments, but other British universities do not: for the system to work, one would need some version of the old system of means-tested student grants (which could be funded from the remainder of the abolished research income stream). In the long term, the surest way of allowing universities to build up their own endowments — besides offering more generous tax breaks for charitable donors — is to create a system in which students get the best teaching imaginable, with the result that those who do well in the world of work will wish to show their gratitude for the intellectual foundations of their success that were laid by their higher education. The current skewing of funding towards research as opposed to teaching is hardly likely to stimulate a shift towards the American culture of alumni support. The neglected third-year Bristol history undergraduate who goes on to become a media mogul would, one imagines, be unlikely to bestow largesse on his alma mater.