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Allow some universities to go private, and re-invest the savings in modern universities, says Abertay principal

Universities should be allowed to go private if they wish, and the public funds thus saved should be re-invested in other institutions committed to providing teaching and research relevant to the economy, according to one of Scotland’s leading academics.

Professor Bernard King, speaking at the University of Abertay Dundee’s graduation ceremony yesterday (Thursday, 6 July), was referring to recent press reports that some Scottish universities wished to charge full tuition fees and raise more money from the private sector, so as to compete internationally.

Universities saying this tended to be the ones that received less than 50%, sometimes as little as 30%, of their total income from the public purse, he said.

Professor King pointed out that international competitors such as the USA’s ‘Ivy League’ universities were entirely private, charging full fees for those who can afford it but also providing scholarships for the less well-off.

“Coincidentally, those Scottish universities least dependent on the public purse enrol many students who have already been paying up to £30,000 per annum in public school fees, and for whom a Scottish university education is, by comparison, a real bargain,” he said.

“Perhaps the time has come for a full debate on whether this type of subsidy for the wealthy should continue. Perhaps, for some institutions, there is now an opportunity to be bold and to opt entirely out of the state funding system and go private, charging fees comparable to Harvard and to public schools in the UK (and providing scholarships for the less well-off).”

Professor King said that universities opting to go private would “free themselves from what they decry as the shackles of state regulation,” but warned that the result would be to break up the traditional diversified Scottish higher education system funded wholly or largely by the taxpayer.

He said: “We have to ask whether the traditional model is still affordable, and whether it is wise to continue drifting towards a world in which universities merge and become ever more monolithic solely in pursuit of ivory tower ambitions for academic glory on the world stage.

“Universities that wish to forgo their public funding to chase such dreams can do so. The funding saved could be re-invested in modern universities like Abertay where…they will get a much better return on their investment and which…produce graduates and knowledge that directly address the needs of the economy,” he said.

Professor King cited a report published last month by the Campaign for Modern Universities as evidence of the economic benefits on offer from institutions like Abertay.

“(The report) showed that every pound the taxpayer spends on research at Abertay and universities like it attracts more than twice as much money from UK industry and four times as much from the European Union as every pound spent in older universities,” he said.

And he quoted former education secretary Estelle Morris writing in The Guardian last week, who praised modern universities for this achievement and said that Britain must recognise their unique contribution to the country’s industrial base.

Professor King said that getting the best possible return from the taxpayer’s investment was particularly important when pressure on the public purse was so intense, yet funding was so limited.

“This fundamental concern is particularly important for Scotland, now that Scottish universities are having to face the increased competition posed by English universities set to enjoy greatly increased funding from top-up fees next year,” he said.

Addressing the graduates directly, Professor King said: “Now that you have graduated and are set to embark on challenging and rewarding careers, you might well wonder what any of this has to do with you. It is simply that, as universities become ever more important for lifelong learning and to support the knowledge economy of the future, you as the taxpayers and lifelong learners of the future will want to know that universities are being properly run and funded – and your money wisely spent - for the benefit of the economy.

“Everything we teach, and all the research we do, is delivered in accordance with our mission to make a disproportionate impact on society and the economy,” he concluded.

Kevin Coe | alfa
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