Leader: Can't cry wolf over all the howling

Paul Ramsden's attack on the critics of academic reform is entertaining but unfair: there are plenty of causes for concern

December 13, 2012

It is wickedly provocative. In this week's Times Higher Education, Paul Ramsden, an education consultant perhaps best known in the UK as the former head of the Higher Education Academy, launches a no-holds-barred attack on "dealers in catastrophe" who warn that the current reforms aimed at creating a market in English higher education will end in disaster.

Ramsden characterises those who have raised alarm about what are widely accepted to be the most radical reforms to higher education for generations as indulging in "self-serving hyperbole". These naysayers, "blinded by vested interest", are whipping up "moral panic" of the worst kind, something akin to the misplaced hysteria over the so-called millennium bug or "killer bees", he claims.

He argues: "Pessimism and fear of change seem to be ingrained in the academic mindset."

It is an eye-wateringly audacious - and highly engaging - read. It is also unfair.

The one named target of Ramsden's attack is Will Hutton, former editor of The Observer and current principal of Hertford College, Oxford. His crime? He has argued that tripled tuition fees and large debts post-graduation will put off prospective students from poorer backgrounds. Ramsden says there is no evidence that this will transpire, but the jury remains resolutely out and Hutton's position is hardly at the extremes of the debate.

Ramsden wants the full deregulation of tuition fees - allowing universities to charge whatever they like - and the lifting of any restrictions on student numbers. So he reserves most ire for those who argue that higher education should not be opened up to an unfettered free market. Among his unnamed targets, we must assume, are Sir Peter Scott and Roger Brown, both eminent professors of higher education who have argued with passion as well as reason that the university is a fundamental public good not best served by the market.

The facts remain: the coalition government is itself at pains to stress that the changes to higher education taking place right now are "radical"; the Browne report, on which they are loosely based, was a flimsy, research-lite document; the changes were rushed in with scant debate under the dark cloak of austerity; the full extent of the reforms' many (and varied) unforeseen consequences are still not understood; and there will be no bill in the foreseeable future to allow proper parliamentary scrutiny of plans to encourage the expansion of private for-profit providers in the system.

The reforms pose the most fundamental questions about what we want from our universities and what they are for. And they come at a time when the UK can legitimately boast, according to a wide array of independent global metrics, to have one of the finest university systems in the world.

In this context, it is absolutely right that what is happening is subjected to the most rigorous and robust scrutiny and debate. And it is in that spirit that Ramsden's intervention should be embraced. But if it takes a bit of pessimism and even doom-mongering to make explicit the seriousness of what is at stake, we must make space for it. It is better to listen to Jeremiah than to ignore Cassandra.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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