Are Universities Safe?
A so called “secret” database held by the grandly named “Higher Education Funding Council for England” was published in the Guardian newspaper this Monday. It revealed that scores of University halls of residence and other buildings including lecture theatres, were classified as “at serious risk of major failure or breakdown” and “unfit for purpose”. In the most severe cases, buildings were deemed totally inoperable because they contravene fire regulations.

The right to publish the database has been the subject of a two-year legal tussle by the newspaper, which ended when a freedom of information tribunal ruled that it was in the public interest to release the data. It shows that more than 90% of higher education institutions had at least 10% of their buildings classified as below the level deemed “sound and operationally safe”. Some Universities had more than 40% of buildings classed as inoperable.

How the Hefce, a government funded Quango, could be granted a legal platform to argue that information on the safety of our university students was not an issue of public interest seems unbelievable. Of course the delaying tactic meant that these buildings could remain “operable” in the interim, and also meant that now the Universities can claim the data to be out of date. They duly responded to the forced publication by saying they have invested millions of pounds in their buildings since the assessments were made two years ago. So I suppose the fifty grand of tax payer cash spent in legal cost by the Hefce to stop publication was not just a cynical ploy by its paymasters to kick the issue into the long grass?

What is farcical is that we will probably never get to know the extent of remedial action taken. The length of time it takes between commissioning an “official” investigation and publishing its findings will always provide scope to claim “major improvements” have been made since collecting the data. Round and round it goes.

As the revelations come just a week after the government announced that university grants for capital projects, such as new buildings, would be cut by 14.9% in cash terms to £562m in 2010-11, it is hard to see Vice-chancellors having the funds for new building and fire safety improvements any time soon even with the low cost of fire safety equipment.

One possible solution presents itself. Why don’t the law enforcers treat education in the same way they treat businesses and send in the fire inspectors to check for breaches of the Regulatory Reform (fire safety) Order? The secret database indicates the sector should be a happy hunting ground for fire safety breaches and the fines raised from subsequent prosecutions can be redirected to upgrades. In the process it will also make our kids a good deal safer in their places of learning.

When it comes to ethical priorities the much vaunted political mantra “Education, Education, Education”, should surely be preceded by “Safety, Safety, Safety”! The funding should be provided to Universities and Schools to ensure this.