Buckingham, the trend

by Stephen Tall on September 7, 2006

A provocative article in today’s Indy Education supplement lauds the success of the UK’s only private university:

In the Higher Education Funding Council of England’s (HEFCE) National Student Survey, published last month, two institutions topped the tables: the Open University, and Buckingham, a private university that charges £10,000 a year for most of its courses.

The key to their satisfaction? That the institution has to respond to the demands of its students for the best possible quality of education – and has the resources to be able to respond positively.

Dr Kealey [Buckingham’s Vice-Chancellor] says attitude has a lot to do with it. “The money comes from students, so they’re our customers,” he says. “At other universities, the main customer is the government. It’s a different culture. We work hard for them. Other universities don’t.” Dr Kealey says it is significant that the other top scorer in the poll was the OU, which he says is the only other institution that charges realistic fees. Both, he argues, share the culture of student as customer and put them first.

The downside to “realistic fees” is obvious enough: student debt which could deter the poorest, unless generous bursary systems are in place. But the upside should also be acknowledged.

At the moment, a student in the HE sector is powerless if the teaching or accommodation (if it’s on offer) which they receive from their university is sub-standard. Sure, they can ask their student union to make representations to the university authorities.

Chances are, it will get them precisely nowhere because universities have the perfect excuse – they don’t have the spare cash to improve things. It’s perfect for two reasons. First, it’s true. And, secondly, they are powerless to generate more cash because of the government fee cap.

Of course, the universities could protest to the Government, and demand extra cash. At which point, the Government will patiently explain to the universities and their students that, although they would love to hike-up taxation to fund the improvements needed, it simply isn’t politically possible because taxes are as high as the public will accept.

In short: no-one’s to blame and everyone’s to blame, equal and universal deniability for the fact that our universities are starved of cash.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. We can either have average universities which are free and under-resourced. Or we accept that world-class universities cost more money than can be delivered by the tax-payer.