I promise I’m not obsessed with the Sunday Times. BUT the most interesting HE story of the week is on its pages today.

Talks start on taking universities private

The government has begun talks that could lead to universities turning themselves into private institutions able to raise their fees above the new £9,000 cap.

Officials are exploring whether universities could keep state funding for research, but opt out of government cash for teaching and student loans.

The talks have been disclosed in a freedom of information release by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which shows officials have been discussing with the Department for Business a mechanism that could enable the change to take place.

If HEFCE and BIS are seriously considering allowing private Universities to be eligible for state research funding then we can forget all the empty huffing and puffing we’ve seen over the past two years. “Privatisation”* really is on the cards.

The fee changes implemented last year have all but eliminated public funding for teaching. But, because research and teaching funding have always been rolled into a single grant, no university has seriously countenanced the idea of severing links with HEFCE. But if the two were to be separated and research funding allowed to be distributed to private institutions, then there is no reason to stay in the public system.

The debate has focussed on whether top research institutions would opt-out of state funding for teaching. I suspect they would, they know full well that they could start charging more than £9,000 per year for their programmes to cover any of the cost they would lose by making such a change and they would be free of any state interference in their admissions policies or level of fees.

More interesting, I think, will be to see what happens to institutions with a more focussed research profile, but have also lost most if not all of their funding for teaching. This table in the THE, shows that the institutions hardest hit are not the research intensives, but new universities and small, specialist institutions. They might have just as much to gain, and might see a future for themselves competing more directly with the lean and mean newcomers such as BPP and the College of Law.

We often forget that we also have an outstanding community of small and specialist institutions operating in the UK that, in their specialist fields, probably outrank any institution in the top 10. Conservatoirs such as TrinityLaban, the Royal Northern College of Music, land based colleges such as the Royal Agricultural or performing arts institutions like the Central School of Speech and Drama. They may now feel they have little to gain by remaining in the ‘public’ sector.

FINALLY, I think we have something to get genuinely exercised about!

*I add the quotation marks, because Universities are all already private enterprises. They are not owned or run by the state. But it has been broadly accepted by all concerned that they are part of the public sphere for many generations.

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