In a recent speech to a Universities UK conference, I pooh-poohed various conspiracy theories doing the rounds on the recent higher education green paper, such as the idea that the Government wants to put the right to raise the undergraduate tuition fee cap in the hands of a Secretary of State rather than Parliament.

But I couldn’t resist adding one of my own regarding the removal of funding from HEFCE’s successor, the Office for Students, and the splitting of funding for teaching from funding for research. I have come to think of it as the Buckingham Question:

“There is a line of thinking within the Conservative Party that we would be better off if there were a British Ivy League in which a small number of institutions are able to secure public funding for research but not for teaching. That is the model that Buckingham University has long wanted to move to, so that its research can earn public funding while it can go on with its separate model of relatively expensive two-year accelerated degrees for teaching.

“Yet that is not currently possible because institutions can only have one financial agreement with HEFCE, which covers teaching and research. If HEFCE’s teaching grant and HEFCE’s QR money are split up, then the concept of a single agreement probably breaks down.

“Perhaps, if the Buckingham model were to become available, some institutions currently funded by HEFCE would try to shift to it. I don’t know and I don’t even know if the issue has been discussed recently in BIS but it would clearly satisfy some of those who sit on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons. Indeed, some of them care rather more about this than they do about letting some institutions raise their fees by inflation.”

There is a slightly eccentric freesheet circulated in Oxford called the Oxford Magazine. It is semi-official but does not represent Wellington Square or the Vice-Chancellor – indeed, it regularly publishes articles criticising the university’s management team.

The new edition includes an article by Professor Peter Oppenheimer, a Fellow of Christ Church and a fierce critic of recent higher education reforms, which discusses the Buckingham Question in terms that suggest we might perhaps think of it as the Oxford Question. As the extract below makes clear, Oppenheimer wants his fellow dons to seize the moment in an effort to ‘restore academic self-determination in Oxford.’

It would be challenging to shift to this model, given the way Oxford is governed, and doing so would threaten the concept of a single national higher education system, which I personally think is of enormous value (even if it is already stretched at the seams, as David Watson wrote for HEPI).

But the issue is under discussion at places other than Buckingham and Oxford as well, so we can clearly expect to hear more about it in the months ahead.