Desperate dons must take risks for bigger rewards

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Tony Blair has shown decisive leadership qualities in putting forward necessary but unpopular proposals to restore universities’ freedom to set fees. It needs to be matched by similar qualities of leadership in the universities themselves.

Tony Blair is proposing that Britain’s universities should regain some freedom to set their fees. The proposal offers him no conceivable personal or political advantage. He supports it for one reason only: he has assessed the evidence carefully and concluded that it is the right thing to do.

A law lecturer at Cambridge university reaches the top of the pay scale, about £35,000, after about 10 years. She earns £5,000 or so more as editor of the standard reference book for practitioners in her field. She has just finished the admissions process. This is burdensome, partly because she has no personal secretarial support and partly because there are almost 10 good applicants per place. Her frustration is not surprising. A two-bedroom flat in Cambridge will cost her £200,000, a house much more. On graduation, her students can enjoy a starting salary of £40,000 with a leading London law firm.

This situation is unsustainable. My own subject of economics is in a much worse state than law. For many years, virtually no UK students have entered the PhD courses that are normal prerequisites for academic jobs in good British universities. If you take an introductory course at one of these institutions, you are unlikely to be taught by a native English speaker. This is not necessarily a bad thing but few of these people will spend their careers in the UK. No one knows who will fill senior academic posts when the generation that entered academic life in the 1960s retires.

Reform cannot come quick enough. Governments should subsidise students, not institutions. Universities and their staff will continue to decline if they are perpetually squeezed in the middle of an argument among students, parents and taxpayers over who should carry the cost. It is ridiculous that a university is not permitted to derive any financial benefit from the strength of student demand for its places. This deprives good institutions of resources; reduces incentives to maintain the quality of programmes and match them to demand; and creates a management structure devoted to toadying to Whitehall rather than building world-class teaching and research.

The decline of British economics may have reached the point of no return. Mr Blair and Charles Clarke, the education secretary, have moved bravely to prevent other subjects going the same way. But wherever Mr Blair learnt lessons in leadership, it was not at Oxford, his alma mater. A senior figure there once confided to me that he could not jeopardise the authority of his office by association with any proposal that might not succeed. I thought it was a light-hearted remark. I came to learn it was intended seriously.

The people who run Oxford and Cambridge universities – or, to be more accurate, who occupy positions of ostensible authority – acknowledge privately that the only way to secure the money and autonomy these institutions need is to raise more from students, their parents and their employers. But they will not say so in public. Their ingrained habit is to avoid any position that might entail a hint of controversy.

The decline of Britain’s leading universities is partly the consequence of insufficient resources. But it is also the responsibility of weak administrators trapped in unworkable governance structures. So while the government is right to put forward proposals to enable these universities to raise more money, it is also right to demand that additional funding be accompanied by better management.

Oxford and Cambridge need more resources but today they dissipate too much of their money in weak departments, weak colleges and weak courses. They are unable to define strategies, determine priorities or make hard choices. The easiest way to achieve excellence is to declare that everything you do is excellent. The alternative – ensuring that everything is indeed excellent – is rejected because the exercise of judgment threatens quiet, consensual life.

Some leaders of UK universities, such as Richard Sykes of Imperial College and Tony Giddens at the London School of Economics – have been willing to make judgments and risk controversy. The danger is that Oxford and Cambridge universities have spent so long in the water that they can no longer grab the lifeline that has been offered them.

The writer was director of the Said Business School at the University of Oxford, 1997-99.

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