Leave state control of universities to China | Chris Patten

I would not risk the accusations of hysteria that would rightly follow if I were to accuse the universities minister, Jo Johnson, of bearing even a passing resemblance to the Chinese president, Xi Xinping. But as Mr Johnson prepares to watch his higher education and research bill continue its passage through the Lords, I would say this to him: either you or Mr Xi understands the true value of an independent university and, whichever one it is, he does not have a brother called Boris. Xi Xinping, naturally enough, understands the independence of universities as a threat and a growing one. Three weeks ago, he told China’s universities: “Adherence to the Party’s leadership is essential to the development of higher education.” Good luck to them in the international league tables with that weight hanging round their neck. In this country, we ought to understand the independence of universities as an integral part of a delicate system that has produced brilliant academic success and a huge British export on a shoestring budget. I am not sure that politicians, even ones as thoughtful as Mr Johnson, have grasped how essential independence is in that mix. There is an awful arrogance about Whitehall sometimes. We have, by general consent, the world’s second-best higher education system. It is far from perfect, with, for example, too little flexibility between pure academic work and technical...

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