Universities – next bit of the UK system to collapse into disrepute?

Is there anything left to cling onto if you value British public life? Clearly our footballers and tennis players are not, as we say in university-land, world class. Infrastructure? Well, the main road from the capital city to the airport is shut just before the Olympics start. Oh yes, the games. I have incoming email from London 2012 telling me to arrive at the Women’s

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football final two hours early and warning me not to bring a bag. Odd that, I often go to football matches and frequently take a bag, if only for the newspapers.

Our lovely media? Leveson, Murdoch, etc etc. Parliament? Expenses scandal a few years back, utter constitutional chaos today. The financial system? Less said the better. The NHS? Works fine, better dismember it. The defenders of the realm, in the shape of the police and the armed forces? So short of money that mass outsourcing of their basic functions is regarded as inevitable.

Here too is an emerging theme. Yes, times are tough economically. But that is no excuse for a government to decide it cannot pay for the basic things a government is meant to provide. FT columnist e Tyler Brule made this point eloquently a few weeks ago. The piece is here but you may get stuck at the paywall. Since then I have noticed more and more examples. One abject case is the proposal that big banks in the City pay for civil servants in the Treasury and the Bank of England, as the public sector cannot afford the best people. The effects on their objectivity were not discussed.

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all this, one big bit of British public life has so far remained exempt. Despite the chaos in schools policy, universities seem to be regarded as clean and credible. They have got a few questions to answer – not enough students from poor families, continuing outbreaks of racism and sexism, the odd financial solecism, here and there a touch of plagiarism. All of these are reprehensible. But British universities remain esteemed nationally and globally. This week’s reported decline in applicant numbers is by no means severe and may well not turn into lower admissions.

The explanation is perhaps a simple one. The sums

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of money sloshing about academe are too small to tempt evildoers. Mind you, these things are relative. Some MPs ruined themselves for sums that Bob Diamond would not bend down to pick up. (Although if he is that rich, why does he always wear the same green tie?)

But is it possible that the universities will be the next revered British institution to be disgraced? The sector has certainly seen big growth in financial rewards for the people at the top, always a possible pressure point, especially when they are not reflected in the pay scales for everyone else. More dangerous, perhaps, is the emergence of for-profit competitors. Many of these bodies have aims and values as demanding and worthwhile as those found in the non-profit world. But the risk is that the appearance of these new providers will cause established universities to cut corners and lower quality, much as Radio 3 did when Classic FM came on the scene. It took the BBC some time and much reputation damage to realise that running after competition weakens your own brand.

In addition, there is scope for the UK university sector to get into severe financial trouble. The move to student fees, and big ones at that, has handed the government an incentive to keep numbers down, because governments pay the fees to universities long before some part of the debt gets paid back by graduates. As universities have to compete for cash with essentials of life, such as schools, hospitals and nuclear submarines, you can imagine things getting tricky at a time of financial stringency in the public sector.

One plus for universities is that although some people in them say and do stupid things, there does not seem to be a Libor-esque sump of genuinely terrible behaviour in them. But nor too does the sector have a big enough circle of friends. Governments never quite get the results they want from all the money that goes

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into them – too few new businesses, too little acceptable policy advice, too little equal opportunities progress. Employers moan about graduates, and firms fail to engage with research.

The upshot is that despite their apparent strength, the universities’ public image may be more fragile than it appears. They rightly suffered little from the absurd and concocted ClimateGate case. But a real scandal, maybe something like a new version of the MMR imbroglio, could be more hazardous this time round, damaging reputations, funding and careers on a lasting basis.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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