A few years ago the then Irish Minister for Education mused aloud in the course of a conversation with me about higher education funding. He wondered whether the answer to the resourcing problems of universities (which were then much less serious than they are now) could be resolved by letting them all ‘go private’. This would involve the state discontinuing the payment of annual recurrent grants or capital investments to the institutions, and directing the money instead to students who had gained a minimum number of points in their Leaving Certificate (final school examination), and letting them decide where to spend it. So the universities would still receive public money, but indirectly, and they could supplement this by setting fees that were higher than the state’s award to the students. This is of course what is known as the ‘voucher‘ system (more commonly discussed in relation to secondary education). It never went beyond the informal conversation.
But can this idea still take off? The place where it might just do so, depending on how public policy develops, is England. The latest report from there suggests that two universities may be toying with the idea of going private; though we are also told that these two are ‘specialist’ institutions and not members of the Russell Group. Speaking of the latter, there is also a prediction that a new ‘super league of strong institutions’ may be emerging in England. These will not necessarily be private, but references to the US Ivy League suggests that there may be some moves in that direction.
To be clear, I have no particular problem with private universities. Some of the American private not-for-profit institutions are the very best in the world, and apart from their undoubted educational and scholarly excellence they also have active social inclusion programmes that would put some of our universities on this side of the Atlantic to shame. But the kind of privatisation that is emerging in England, including that which is mentioned in the recent UK government White Paper, is different, not least because it is based on financial modelling rather than educational excellence.
In all of this, there is a growing debate about the ‘public good’ element of higher education, including a conference that took place yesterday organised by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). It seems to me that sometimes the debate seems to revolve around structures, whereas in reality it should be about values and strategic purpose. Without a clear sense of these, the higher education scene will look chaotic and vaguely threatening. Values and purpose built around pedagogy and scholarship are what policy papers on reform and renewal need to project. And all too often, they don’t.