Editorial: Values or skills - which would shape a university of civil society?

The idea of establishing a university of the third sector, or of civil society, appears to be gaining ground after a series of debates organised by PrimeTimers, a social enterprise that uses business methods to increase the capacity of the sector.

The notion did not receive unquestioning support at the final debate at the London School of Economics last week, but there were strong voices in favour and a consensus that it merited further investigation. PrimeTimers is now seeking funds to employ a researcher who would map existing university provision for the sector and examine what other countries do.

The most obvious purpose for such a university would be to create links between existing courses that are specifically for third sector students, such as those at City University's Cass Business School and at South Bank University. It remains to be seen whether such institutions would see this as a welcome source of support or a dilution of their autonomy. One benefit might be the pooling of ideas, the sharing of best practice and the setting of common standards that could enhance the status and value of the courses offered. Another might be the accreditation of the wide variety of courses relevant to the third sector run by other colleges or private providers. A third could be bringing students from different places of study together from time to time, perhaps along the pattern of the Open University's summer schools.

But the proponents of a university for civil society envisage more than the linking and mutual reinforcement of existing provision. They see it also as the intellectual guardian and powerhouse of the values of the third sector and civil society - independence, mutuality and social progress. In this sense they also see it, to some extent, as a counterweight to the widely perceived tendency of today's higher education to concentrate, at the behest of the Government, on skills at the expense of values. Indeed, when the idea of the new university was outlined to Ed Miliband, former third sector minister and now Minister for the Cabinet Office, he said the Government was always interested in "more strategic proposals for skills development". Such tensions aside, the Office of the Third Sector is said to have responded encouragingly and suggested that the next step should be gathering more information and evidence. With luck and some modest funding, that vital new step should soon be under way.

What do the Shelter strike and the merger of Rainer and Crime Concern, the latter announced this week, have in common? They both illustrate how the service-providing parts of the voluntary sector are being shaped inexorably by the commissioning priorities of the Government. The policies that have led to the dispute at Shelter are designed to put the charity in a better position to compete with other advice providers at a time when the Legal Services Commission, which funds half the costs of its housing advice centres, is cutting the number of its contracts from 4,000 to 130. The Rainer-Crime Concern merger is on one level a sensible amalgamation of charities with like objects. On another it creates an organisation with twice the muscle to compete for the government funding that provides the overwhelming majority of the income of the merging partners.

THAT WAS THEN ... from Third Sector, 22 April 1993

The Charity Commission has confirmed that a wide-ranging enquiry into the £6m alleged fraud at the Salvation Army has been secretly under way since early March. Over a month after the enquiry began on 4 March, the commission released details of the investigation - on the day the Army announced a purge of its senior British leadership. (Page 6)

Non-governmental organisations are becoming more and more alike, according to a new report. The study of ten agencies finds that the growth in NGOs during the 1980s has led to 'significant organisational change', with most becoming more bureaucratic. Other trends are professionalisation, restructuring exercises, decentralisation and increased competition in fundraising. (Page 7)

In the rush to become more business-like, voluntary organisations have increasingly been adopting management techniques, jargon and even the managers themselves from the private sector. So we have weekends on total quality management, seminars on 'customer bias' and former Barclays Bank managers running local Oxfam shops. (Book review, page 8)

Eiris, the ethical investment research service, celebrates its tenth birthday this month. Founded in 1983 with the support of churches and charities and a £20,000 grant from the Joseph Rowntree Trust, the organisation has now grown to the point of supporting itself by selling its services, which brought in over £250,000 last year. (Page 9)

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