University an end in itself – despite tuition fees

When the HMC Universities Sub-committee met at Reading this term, we were hosted by the vice-chancellor, Sir David Bell, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education and chief inspector of schools. Sir David had readily agreed  to an interview for Insight starting with his impressions of higher education, three years after arriving at the university.

“Reading reminded me of the great excitement of being attached to a single institution. Although I was hugely privileged to do two major national jobs, I realised how much I’d missed the day-to-day engagement with the same group of students and staff.”

You have to be realistic: people are sceptical of self-regulation. UK higher education is one of our most successful exports and the general standard is high, but it is probably the least regulated part
of the education system.

For some of Sir David’s Whitehall days, HE had been part of the education department.

“I remember commissioning one of our senior people to do a “think piece” on higher education and quite a lot of the things she speculated on have come to pass: the liberalisation of student numbers, greater international competition and, of course, higher fees. One thing about David Willetts: he was hugely interested in his brief, and he was also a careful listener. Big and controversial changes have been made and given where we are now, it would be pretty hard to go back on most of these changes. I think the argument for a greater contribution on the part of students is one that has been won.”

Read more on p14 of issue 3 of Insight