A public or private academy?

The Adam Smith Institute is an influential think tank, which approaches the issues on which it comments from a ‘free market’ perspective. That puts it on what most would regard as the more right wing end of the political spectrum, though the Institute itself stresses that it is non-party and maintains good relations across the whole political field in the UK and elsewhere.

One of its most recent reports, The Broken University, has addressed the issue of higher education. The author of the report, James Stanfield of the University of Newcastle, draws some fairly startling conclusions. His key point is that ‘there is no evidence that there is any economic benefit whatsoever from transferring over £14.3 billion a year from the taxpayer (including those on low incomes) to students and universities’. However, he is not suggesting that universities are not a worthwhile investment, but rather than funding them through public money is wrong. To back up this assertion he gives a number of reasons, saying that government funding (and therefore control) has a number of consequences:

Undermining the autonomy and independence of private institutions
Crowding out philanthropic donations
The complete disruption and distortion of the pricing system
Combining and confusing academic, professional and vocational education
The widespread rationing of university places
Restricting private investment from home and abroad
Crowding out for-profit institutions and entrepreneurial talent
Restricting competition and innovation throughout the sector
Qualification inflation

The net effect, he suggests, is that public funding is an unmitigated disaster, because not only does it redistribute funding from the poor to the rich (who disproportionately benefit from higher education), it also disrupts and undermines the success and vitality of higher education. He then makes a number of recommendations, which in essence envisage the removal of public subsidies from universities (while transferring some of these resources to students instead to spend as they may decide), and the opening up of a deregulated system of higher education to private and for-profit participants.

Speaking for myself, I find his analysis interesting, but would find it hard to go with his conclusions. I would agree that public funding and control has, particularly over recent times but in fact to some extent for along time, sometimes damaged rather than supported higher education. I agree that the at first creeping and now galloping bureaucratisation has been damaging. I agree that politicians all too often meddle with higher education without really understanding it. I agree that the narrow political vision of university resourcing and funding has crippled their strategic development.

However, higher education is a public good and should not be outside the realm of public accountability and transparency. And while I do not object in principle to some for-profit higher education, I would suggest that the major world class institutions will always be public or not-for-profit entities.

But this report does raise some very important issues, and its suggestion that organising and funding universities as public sector bureaucratic agencies is not necessarily a recipe for success. There are issues here that merit debate at least, not least because we appear to have entered an era in which the traditional model of higher education has been made non-viable.

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11 Comments on “A public or private academy?”

  1. Iainmacl Says:

    You are a little too diplomatic in your description of that particular ‘think tank’, I suspect. They are a source of much nonsense and essentially hanker after an ‘ideal’ market economy in which every human interaction is an economic transaction and where social solidarity exists only where it is profitable. In times in which we have seen some of the global effects of such ‘free’ markets it is a pity that the arguments of those who were its champions are still being accorded some credibility. It is disconcerting to see how many of these think-tanks (which are essentially producers of propaganda rather than real research institutes) in the last couple of years have turned their focus on renewed attacks on the public sector. I think it’s time to challenge those organisations themselves. Indeed, it is a pity that universities, under so much pressure, seem unable to assert themselves as the real ‘think tanks’, places where ideas are discussed, debated and which should be at the centre of public discourse. Part of the difficulty I suspect is that universities are often a celebration of dissensus rather than consensus. But we do need to be able to call out propaganda for what it is.

    Of course, part of their power is that they shape the nature of the public debate by having their views so widely disseminated in the media and so we have to react, but then that is what it is interpreted as, a reaction. Time for us to lead the debate, why should others set the parameters?

    • Jilly Says:

      Entirely agree. The same applies to the reporting at face-value of every half-baked statement about education and the public sector generally by government ministers, ‘business leaders’ etc. These statements – issued as press releases – are printed almost verbatim by the newspapers with little or no analysis of their supposedly factual content, let alone their political/ideological agenda. I know I’ve complained about this before on this blog, but our news media in Ireland is absolutely woeful at doing its basic job.

      A similar lack of rigour was of course responsible for the free pass the finanical system had for so many years. And yet the press still prints statements by the Financial Regulator, the IMF and so forth with little if any analysis or questioning. If we don’t improve the quality of the public sphere in this country, we will NEVER get out of the mess we’re in…

  2. Vincent Says:

    These people hold that Henry VIII did more that enough in the education field with the grammar schools and the Colleges he endowed. While this is a position it sure as hell isn’t mine.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Bloody well done on the wireless.

    I’ve wondered a few times, but with the ego’s which are her usual bread and butter how does she prevent chaos with all of you going at it at the same time.

  4. Jilly Says:

    Sounds interesting. I’m ignoring the grade inflation because it’s bad for my blood-pressure. I think the Iceland vote is VERY interesting though. Could have interesting implications here, if we were allowed a referendum…

  5. Iainmacl Says:

    not bad item in Business post though…thanks to Jennifer O’Connell.


  6. Enda Says:

    These kind of “think tanks” and anyone else touting a ‘free market’ perspective really shouldnt be taken seriously, apart from as a destructive threat which needs to be countered. As other posters have pointed out these think-tanks do not do research as their agenda is predetermined and will never change. I despair that even now, people still actually listen to these disciples of Milton Friedman. If these people are still being listened to then the recent economic debacle hasn’t taught us anything? I shudder think what will have to happen before this malignant economic charade is put down.

  7. […] and form an independent US-style Ivy League. Earlier this year, Ferdinand von Prondzynski also speculated about this issue on his blog. Last week, things moved from speculation closer to reality: the […]

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