Student in the Franciscan library of the University of Buckingham. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why I am backing Buckingham University

Buckingham University is flying high without the help of state support

Britain’s universities are currently seeking emergency funding from the government of at least £2.2 billion, warning that some of them will go bust without support. The only exception is the independent University of Buckingham which does not accept state funding as a matter of principle.

The government, however, shows no eagerness to oblige those extending a begging bowl. Reportedly impatient with a sector of the economy which is in need of obvious reform, but which shows no willingness to reform itself, there is talk of removing university powers as a condition of assistance. A task force will determine which research projects get funding – piling Pelion on Ossa – there are even plans to restrict admissions which would mean that universities will be able to recruit only five per cent more students than last year in order to prevent them poaching from lesser rivals.

The government is about to discourage competition, and centralise decision-making. It is almost unbelievable!

In other words, a government which is supposed to be committed to decentralisation, deregulation and competition is about to discourage competition, and centralise decision-making.

It is almost unbelievable!

Although continuing to parrot the claim that British higher education is the best in the world, the fact is ministers have long been unhappy about the state of British universities, given the evidence of plummeting academic standards, grade drift, and a reluctance to resist assaults on free speech.

Such concerns co-exist with an uneasy awareness that those who run Britain’s universities have done little to assist the small minority of academics who resist the erosion of academic integrity arising from an obsessive preoccupation with diversity and identity. A hall mark of the illiberal liberal!

Meanwhile, the campus conservative has become a very rare bird. A recent report from the Adam Smith Institute records that eight out of ten university lecturers are left-wing. The result:

“Social settings characterised by too little diversity of viewpoints are likely to become afflicted by group think, a dysfunctional atmosphere where key assumptions go unquestioned, dissenting opinions are neutralised, and favoured beliefs are held as sacrosanct.”

Just a few weeks ago, a student at Cambridge who was brave enough to join the Conservative party, tweeted that because of the obvious left wing bias of his tutors and the no-platforming strategy of student activists he felt that he was trapped inside “a weird woke echo chamber.” This is a sad commentary on a university which claims to be among the best in the word.

In a coruscating account of how his own discipline of international relations has been corrupted, David Martin Jones, currently a visiting professor at Kings, London hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “Given the fact that universities are in the business of thinking, what should really be mandated is a diversity of ideas. This, however, is not the case. The progressive campus has stifled the conservative, classical liberal or sceptical voice.”

It is not only conservatives who feel deeply troubled by the lack of intellectual freedom. Stephan Collini, the Cambridge historian and literary critic, writes “ genuine academic freedom in British universities is in a parlous condition, reflecting the daily erosion of intellectual integrity, the relentless commodification of scholarly values, and the tightening grip of a managerialist autocrats.

All this being so, one can quite why can quite see why a conservative ministers should not be keen to rush to fund the 130 universities now thrusting their begging bowls in their direction. Yet the proposed reforms would seem not to be merely questionable but likely to enforce trends which have eroded academic integrity and lowered standards, especially when presided over by officials who have helped shape the prevailing orthodoxy. What is required is not
conformity, but a diversity of provision, choice and flexibility.

All is not well in the higher seats of learning, but there is much to be learned from the one university that is not expecting the taxpayer to bail it out – the University of Buckingham. I am proud to have backed it since its inception, to have supported appointment of the economist Alan Peacock as its first vice chancellor in 1980 and, more recently, to have provided funding for the new centre for economics and entrepreneurship which opened in 2019.

Any visitor arrives in Buckingham is immediately struck by a culture that differs markedly from that of mainstream universities. The priority is on learning. Research is valued – Buckingham leads the way in significant areas – but it is not permitted to stand in the way of teaching, as it does in so many other universities. It recognises that students don’t want and don’t deserve to subsidise the research activities of their teachers. Hand it full marks for putting the long term interests of students first.

Financial independence buttresses intellectual freedom; Buckingham is forthright in its support for free speech, having created and defended an environment in which alternative perspectives can be discussed, analysed, criticised. It has demonstrated an impressive adaptability in responding to the practical as well as the intellectual needs of students; it has pioneered two year degree courses for students who don’t want three months summer of wasteful summer idleness. As its outgoing vice chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon is proud to point out, Buckingham is consequently able to educate doctors more quickly and cheaply than anywhere else. It has introduced a choice of September, January and April start dates for courses – which in the present climate of acute uncertainty is likely to prove a considerable asset. Course fees vary according to costs.

Buckingham’s motto is Alis Volans Proprilis (Flying on our Own Wings). Independence is in its DNA

Students do not leave feeling short changed as they do when completing their courses: Buckingham was voted first for student satisfaction in 2017, 2018, and 2019 and has been rated first for teaching excellence. Buckingham graduates find jobs more quickly than those from any other UK university.

The ability of mainstream universities, particularly Oxbridge, to attract philanthropic support depends in large part on their alumni’s misty-eyed recollections of happy undergraduate days. The ability of Buckingham to do so – it has an impressive record in attracting sponsors on whom it is crucially relies – depends on the backing of individuals who recognise the importance of independence and autonomy, assets which other seats of learning have so carelessly tossed away.

Buckingham’s motto is Alis Volans Proprilis (Flying on our Own Wings). Independence is in its DNA. Fifty years after it was declared open by Margaret Thatcher. Flying high without the help of state support. But perhaps its greatest value is as a reminder of the power of autonomy, a lesson which will one day need to be heeded if British universities are to restore their tarnished reputations.

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