Universities - the excellent and the could do better

Britain can be very proud of our higher sector. Two of the top universities in the world are British and students come here from all over the globe to study research and learn. 

But that is not to say that this sector is without fault. It continues to gall many of us that Vice- Chancellors of many universities are paid so much. Leading a major institution requires skill and dedication, but how can it be right that many of them are paid three times more than the Prime Minister? The boss of Bath University weighed in at £468,000 before she retired. It is a nonsense.

 As essentially private sector organisations responsible only to their own boards of governors, they have the right to set their own pay levels. If they do not reform themselves, Parliament should take action to force them to rethink their pay scales, especially now that students borrow so much to pay their fees. University income is partly from government grant, partly from student fees and partly from other income they can generate through commercial research and partnerships with business. Time to act.

The second issue is grade inflation. When I was at King’s College London in the late 1970’s our law faculty went 4 years without awarding any first-class honours. (As anyone who has had more than a 12 second conversation with me knows, I was very proud to be the one to break that barren streak.) They were quite rare. These days 25% of students achieve first class degrees. Were we more stupid then or has there been grade inflation which makes genuine comparisons difficult to make? This is particularly important for employers who need to know the real calibre of the person sitting in front of them hoping for a job. 

Thirdly, too many universities are still drawing from selective and private schools only and more needs to be done to release and encourage the talent of pupils from all backgrounds. Intelligence does not depend on which family, region school or home you were brought up in. 

Finally, I take exception to some universities banning speakers or the discussion of topics with which they disagree. I accept that some people’s views are vile. I do not want to give succour to preachers of hate or those who stir up terrorism or violence, but universities should be a veritable cauldron of lively debate – the very last place where free speech should be curtailed.