For more than 30 years, Buckingham was the UK’s only private university. Does its history offer lessons on the way forward for higher education?

William Leith:

There are two types of university in Britain, explains Professor Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. There are private ones, such as Buckingham and the newly opened New College of the Humanities in London, and there are those that are funded and controlled by the state. Kealey does not approve of the latter type.
If you’re a university, says Kealey, you should want to be private. Being private, you can charge whatever fees you want, teach whatever subjects you want, to whomever you want. If Britain had more private universities, says Kealey, we would be able to compete with the best in the world. As it is, we’re slipping.
Why? Well, says Kealey, “the best universities in the world are the Ivy League. The next best are the English-speaking ones that are independent but not totally.” These, says Kealey, are “in the thrall of social engineering”. And then come the universities of continental Europe. These institutions, he says, are nationalised, like Britain’s railway system used to be. So there’s no incentive for them to excel. They’re sinking in the mire of a planned economy, like 1970s commuters waiting on grotty platforms for trains that always arrive late.