Leader: Bull or bear, they will fight it

The Council for the Defence of British Universities aims to repel the market forces that it says threaten the academy's values

November 8, 2012

Two men were hiking in the woods when a grizzly bear appeared through the trees.

"Run for your life!" the first man shouted. The second man stopped, took off his walking boots and pulled on a pair of running shoes. "Are you crazy? A bear can run much faster than you, even if you're wearing running shoes!" his friend screamed. "Yes," the man replied, "but I don't have to outrun the bear - I just have to outrun you."

This week, two of our most eminent scholars from the arts and sciences, Sir Keith Thomas and Lord Rees, light the touch paper on the Council for the Defence of British Universities. The list of founding members includes celebrated academics from across the "two cultures", as well as figures from outside higher education.

But as Professor Thomas, a former president of the British Academy, writes in this week's Times Higher Education: "It is revealing that...the council has found that current vice-chancellors are reluctant to get involved whereas former university leaders sign up with alacrity."

Which brings us back to the bear and the running shoes.

Professor Thomas argues that the attempt to introduce market forces into higher education is doing irreparable damage to universities' individual missions and to the sector's sense of common purpose.

"Instead of regarding each other as allies in a common enterprise, they are [being] forced to become commercial competitors," he writes. "Vice-chancellors, whose concerns are overwhelmingly financial, are understandably nervous about alienating their paymasters by stepping out of line. Their usual reaction to any new measure, however damaging, is not to oppose it but to ask how it can best be turned to local advantage."

To challenge this response, the council's members have thrown their considerable weight behind a set of core principles that defend "academic values and institutions". This manifesto covers varied ground but its foundation is the primacy of academic freedom and autonomy from government and managerial interference.

Another theme is the debilitating emphasis on money in so many aspects of the academy, from the creativity-sapping focus on funding and impact in research to students being encouraged to behave like consumers.

For the CDBU to succeed, it is essential that these concerns strike a chord not just among the academic elite but also across the rank and file and beyond the campus walls. The backing of such well-known figures as Sir David Attenborough will no doubt help, but opponents of utilitarian attitudes to education will find plenty of fuel elsewhere.

This week, we report on research suggesting that there has been a significant decline over the past decade in the earnings premium enjoyed by graduates. This is a worrying finding but it does underline the point that to focus solely on what a degree is worth in terms of pounds and pence is not only a mistake philosophically, it also leaves universities at the mercy of economic ebb and flow.

If all look out only for number one, the danger is that the nature of higher education will be fundamentally damaged. The CDBU is an attempt by some of the UK's most senior academics to help us take a broader view of what we have and what we stand to lose.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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