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Tuesday, 28th April 2009

UK -- Sink or swim? Facing up to failing universities

Sink or swim? Facing up to failing universities (PDF; 572 KB)
Source: Policy Exchange

The idea of a university going to the wall is one that we have steadfastly ignored in Britain for many years. Yet with the economic downturn threatening every stream of university revenue this is a nettle that we must finally grasp. There are many who would argue that the very notion of a university ever going under is an outrage that should not be discussed. We disagree. The deeply-embedded culture of shoring up struggling institutions as fast and as quietly as possible means that universities are unable to learn lessons from failure in other institutions. There have been 27 university mergers since 1997, but there is little or no information available about them and there has been no political discussion about dealing with failing institutions. Given that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) will distribute just under 8 billion of public money to 131 institutions in 2009-10, we feel strongly that our no-fail culture must be questioned.

Outside London the economic and social impact of a major university going under would be so great that a merger carefully planned and with a clear institutional mission would almost certainly be the preferred option. Yet within the capital, where there are an astonishing 42 higher education institutions competing for students, there should be a realisation that a university could close, if that is shown to be the best use of public money and assuming that students can be satisfactorily located elsewhere. The government should also be thinking hard about allowing private providers to take over all or part of a failing institution, especially where no other suitable university partner is keen to step in.

Given the amount of public money that goes into higher education we do not believe that there is sufficient accountability. This is not necessarily the fault of the funding council. It is currently trying to walk a precariously thin line between protecting the all-important autonomy of universities and operating sufficient oversight that it can spot and help institutions before they get into really hot water. Yet the fact that London Metropolitan University has somehow over- claimed in the region of 50 million of public money suggests that this oversight regime is not working as it should be. There needs to be a debate within the sector about how universities are reviewed. And there must be more clarity about exactly what powers HEFCE has. It is time for the government to stop pretending that failure does not happen and to start giving a clear steer on how it should be dealt with.


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