25 June 2024

Universities need to focus on what they are good at – not childcare


Our universities are up in arms again, this time about on-campus nurseries. Once a common feature of campus life, many of these services are now being closed or cut back in order to save cash. The latest organisation to withdraw the facility is the high-profile QMW in the University of London.

This has been described as a disaster: a demonstration of university bosses’ unhealthy obsession with short-term financial savings. Closing campus nurseries has been portrayed as a knock-out blow to equality and a setback to the widening of access for those such as single mothers, not to mention a financial blow to academics and students, who will now be reduced to buying childcare in the market in competition with others with small children. This perspective will strike a chord with many academics for certain, and probably with at least some members of any incoming Labour government.

There is, however, a contrary way of looking at the matter. For anyone interested in the long-term health of higher education, this retrenchment is probably good news.

One reason is obvious: if cuts have to be made and there is a choice where they have to fall, then this is the right choice. Better defund free or subsidised childcare than front-line teaching, research or library budgets. But there is more to it than this. Put bluntly, this episode is merely one illustration of the way our universities try to do too much.

A major reason why many higher education institutions are facing existential difficulties is precisely that they have lost sight of the fact that they have a core business – which, in case you had forgotten, is providing lectures, laboratories, libraries and facilities in which academics can work and students study. In contrast to many great civic universities in Europe, where students live in town and come in to be educated, many of even the less prestigious UK universities in the last fifty years have morphed into multi-purpose megacorporations with management structures to match. They are now in the business not only of instruction but of accommodation, catering, entertainment, welfare and student services.

This attempt to be all things to all people, possibly stemming indirectly from the rather different traditions of the ancient collegiate universities, brings with it difficulties. There is a strong argument that things might be better for everyone studying and working in universities – at least on the academic side – if this process was reversed and they cut back on their peripheral activities.

For one thing, dispassionate university teaching and study doesn’t mesh well with corporatism, the growth-driven ethos and captain-of-industry salaries that go with it, and marketing managers’ obsession with the ‘student experience’ rather than – well, learning and research. Treat scholarship not as an activity to be pursued but as a commodity to be sold like entertainment, or invested in by students looking for high earnings later, and you will get second-rate teaching and research delivered as a matter of obligation rather than enthusiasm.

Secondly, it’s all very well to complain that a university in abandoning its childcare service is an attack on the values of equality, equitable access to learning and the rights of single mothers. But that leaves an awkward question: should the university have been in the business of promoting these values in the first place? Very arguably not. EDI and all the other aspects of modern wokery may be an increasingly endemic feature of corporate life. But universities are different: a more congenial view of the ideal university is as an institution that takes no position on matters of social policy and leaves such matters up to voters and the state.

Most importantly, while an organisation devoted to academic study has quite a good chance of doing it well, that same body may well not be nearly as good when it comes to other services supplied as a sideline. If you’re looking for the best in childcare, or for that matter catering or student accommodation, you wouldn’t normally go to an organisation whose main function lies somewhere else and only provides them as a sideline. If so, the academic from Keele who was shocked at the idea that responsibilities such as childcare ‘aren’t the university’s issue’ has got matters diametrically wrong. Let universities do what they do best: teach, research and give the opportunity to study. If students and staff need other services, let them obtain them from outsiders who specialise in providing them and will probably do a better job.

It is said that Sue Gray, high-profile adviser to the Labour Party, has already drawn up a secret disaster list including universities which a Labour government may feel compelled to bail out to stave off bankruptcy and closure. If more universities follow the lead on QMW and abandon sideline activities that they may not do very well anyway, Gray might even be able to dismiss at least a few more from her dismal defaulters’ parade.

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Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of law at Swansea Law School.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.