Can universities Russell up reform?

To balance the national accounts, taxes will have to go up and public expenditure will have to come down.  Both changes offer huge opportunities to radicals.

The necessary tax increases should be used to move our tax system from being, at best, proportional, to become more progressive.  Similarly, cuts in public expenditure should concentrate the mind on what key reforms would most significantly change our society for the better.

I have outlined before how I believe a radical pension reform, guaranteeing all pensioners over time an income above mean-testing, would help to begin to transform the public accounts. 

The means test bill – £15bn and rising – would start to decline as more and more pensioners qualified for a decent minimum.  The £15-16bn of tax subsidies to pension savings could be phased out over a fifteen year period and a closure put on any new entrants to public sector pensions. 

Higher education awaits similar radical proposals.  At one time our great universities were independent of Government and great powers in the land – rather like medieval Barons.  It was they who shaped higher education policy, not transient bureaucrats in Whitehall.

In a letter in today’s Financial Times, I call on the Russell Group of universities – the best endowed – to declare independence before it is forced on them by the next radical Government.  Their task should be to set out how many students they believe they should take and on what terms.  They should cease taking orders from any Government. 

The objective of 50 per cent of the population going to university was always unsound educationally.  It is now financially impossible.

What the universities must not get into is a “game” with the Government whereby this absurd target is pursued when the size of individual undergraduate budgets being cut.  Governments will continue to set the amount tax-payers will be asked to fund higher education.  When naming their price per student the universities would determine the numbers going into higher education and what courses are offered.

We are likely to see some universities close.  But isn’t that better than duping successive generations of students to undertake courses which make them worse off in terms of salaries than if they didn’t go to university in the first place? 

The ground would then be set for a blooming of other forms of education (although they may not be so named) catering for those who have both been to university and those who have not.  The one thing we can be sure of is that this new sector, paid for by consumers, will be stunted at birth while central Governments run a Stalinist-type command economy for higher education.  

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