Sir Roy Anderson, Vice Chancellor of Imperial College, told the Guardian this week that Britain’s top universities should be privatised:
"How important is higher education to UK plc? Staggeringly so. It is a multi-billion-pound industry. It is one of the few things we are world competitive in. If you take the top five universities, they have enormous potential to earn income for Britain. How best to do that? My own view would be to privatise them".
He has a point. If the Government allowed universities to opt out of public control, universities – such as Sir Roy’s UK ‘ivy league’ of Imperial, Oxbridge, UCL and LSE – would be able to charge the fees that they deemed suitable for a particular course. This would allow such institutions to really compete with other leading universities around the world.
Concerns about access to these elite private institutions have been allayed in the US by significant bursary schemes; bright students who cannot afford the high fees compete for generous scholarships, which helps ensure that those who deserve to attend the top institutions can do so. Privatization of these institutions may also have a positive influence on those universities that don’t choose to give up public funding; a thriving UK university sector attracts valuable foreign students (many of whom do not attend the UK’s ivy league universities) and this revenue stream will increase if Britain confirms its place as a world leader in education; for students, the pressure on all universities to drive up standards will increase, hopefully leading to better degrees and facilities.
Moreover, public universities need not lose any sort of credibility; Berkeley, in the US, is a publicly funded institution – the University of California to be precise – that has a superb global reputation.
Giving universities the freedom to set their own fees would allow a vital part of the economy to flourish, and their research would drive innovation in other sectors too. The importance of top-quality higher education is, as Sir Roy says, of staggering importance.