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March 12, 2003
Higher education is already nationalised

A different slant on the Bristol University ruckus from regular guest contributor Julius Blumfeld:

Following on from the Bristol University admissions debacle, Brian has written in favour of British Universities being free to decide who to admit. Iím not so sure.

Of course in the private sector, educational institutions ought to be free to teach what they want and to whom. If one University chooses to admit only poor bright students while another chooses to admit only rich thick ones, thatís fine by me.

But almost all British Universities are largely publicly funded and have been since even before the 1963 Robbins Report. For all practical purposes, they are State industries.

And like all State industries, decisions as to what they should produce and how they should produce it are necessarily political. It makes no more sense to say that British Universities should have the freedom to decide their own admissions policies than to say that the Army should have the freedom to decide who to fight or that the Health Service should have the freedom to decide which diseases to treat. Of course the bureaucrats in those industries will have a say in those sorts of decisions. So will the technicians. There may be room for a bit more autonomy here and there. But ultimately as long as the State is in charge, it will and must make the ultimate decisions. Itís one of the things that States do.

Indeed higher education is just an example of a wider problem with State-owned property. It is impossible to reach agreement on how State-owned property is best used because there is no agreed measure as to what counts as best use. I may think that Universities should be used for social engineering. You may think they should be used to churn out engineers. Brian may think they should be used to teach art and culture to the masses. Who is right? I donít know and indeed there is no means of knowing. So we end up with such decisions being made by politicians (and, increasingly, I anticipate, by judges).

The fact is that as long as Universities remain in the State sector, it is inevitable that the State will make the decisions about what is taught and to whom. And it is equally inevitable that there will be hand wringing from those who donít like the decisions that are being made. It could not be otherwise. It is only when the Universities finally wean themselves off their decades-long addiction to public funding and become private again (a process which this latest debacle will hopefully hasten), that they will become free to decide what to teach and to whom, and the whole debate will go away.

Julius Blumfeld

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:05 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsHigher education
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