Between the lines by John Blundell

GLASGOW University is to abandon its Crichton campus in Dumfries. This is a sadness. Perhaps it is also an opportunity. The handsome 85 acre site is a natural home to a thriving college. The location has a good claim to be the most beautiful campus in all of Britain.

Universities represent fountains of income to their host communities. Part of the success of Edinburgh comes from the multiple universities in the city – Heriot Watt, Queen Margaret’s, Napier and the once tiny and obscure Edinburgh University, now world famous.

They are rather more than their academic staff and undergraduates. Universities create a penumbra of associated roles. Far more jobs are created from support services than from teaching.

Yet all of Scotland’s universities are subject to the detailed direction and control of the Scottish Executive. Is it not time Scotland created its first entirely independent university? I suggest Dumfries.

It may be argued that the host town, with a population of 40,000, is too small. Dumfries could flourish if the site, now in something of a crisis, could be a private university. Dumfries is larger than Oxford or Cambridge was when they started and far larger than St Andrews was when it was initiated.

The model I have in mind is the University of Buckingham. This is the UK’s only autonomous university. It receives no state funding and is entirely free of the regulatory interference to which every other college is subjected. Buckingham has just been voted the top campus in Britain in the National Student Survey.

I quote Buckingham’s vice-chancellor, Dr Terence Kealey: “Independence from the state is a blessing. We have a minimal bureaucratic burden. This translates into high morale for both our students and our teachers. Our undergraduates are also our customers. We have to deliver or they will go elsewhere. An independent university in Scotland would be more agile that those controlled by the Scottish Executive. A previous vice-chancellor of Buckingham, Sir Alan Peacock, lives in Edinburgh. He could offer sage advice.”

Our nationalised universities are a strange mix of the highly talented and the deeply slothful. Too many academics are entirely indifferent to students. Some regard undergraduates as interruptions to their research.

Just as companies thrive when they are liberated from state control, so could a private Scottish university.

To some ears, my notion may sound outlandish or impractical. Yet look at the top universities in the world. They are all private foundations entirely unconnected to governments. I mean Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Dartmouth. They all enjoy a lustre far above the universities controlled by political bureaucracy.

I could argue my case in terms of student satisfaction and academic freedom but on these pages it seems more apt to argue it is also inspired business practice. A flourishing university could inject vitality into Dumfries and wider Galloway. Not everyone wants to be in a metropolitan city where costs are at their highest.

The secret ingredient behind Buckingham’s humming enthusiasm is the discovery that students can complete their degrees in two years of intensive study. Buckingham seems to be singular in its relaxed but agile regime. Students can join the academic year in January, July or September.

So much of the rest of the planet wants to learn English that any new University of Dumfries would find itself a magnet for global students. The Buckingham example is strikingly international.

In some ways it might be a happy opportunity if one of the firmly established Scottish universities would secede from state control. There is no doubt St Andrews would be a greater success free to act as it wished. Stirling perhaps could be more dynamic and creative without having to ask permission of its controllers in Leith all the time.

So, Dumfries’s present quasi-limbo status strikes me as a huge opportunity to trigger improvements in every university if it struck out on its own funded by its customers and supported by philanthropy.

I am not arguing for a university that only trains young people in vocational courses. It is a vulgar error to think universities are merely supply resources for business. A good education teaches critical and lively thinking. Buckingham, the town, has blossomed with the arrival of its new university. I commend Dumfries civic leaders to nip down there and get an injection of enthusiasm. The days when prosperity seemed to be linked to dark satanic mills of metal bashing industries are gone. The most important “industry” is intellectual development.

Some will express horror that a university could be cash-generative. I do not envisage a university that would pay out a dividend. Its investors would be its students, who would take advantage of a high esprit de corps and a high student-staff ratio.

If Adam Smith or David Hume are not the two greatest Scotsmen who ever lived then the only other candidate can be James Clerk Maxwell, a Dumfriesshire man who created our electronic civilisation from his secluded studies in the nearby hills. Rural virtues could be part of Dumfries’s appeal.

I am of course being too tentative. I would like to see every Scottish university freed from the subtle but intimate coercions and restrictions of Jack McConnell’s team. This seems far over the horizons of possibility but a new independent university nestling in Dumfries and Galloway seems a creative resolution for the pretty Crichton Campus.

John Blundell is director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

See also Buckingham at 25: Freeing the Universities from State Control by James Tooley