Leader: Don't be shy...tell it like it is

Whether for or against reforms in England, vice-chancellors are duty bound to marshal evidence and clarify their position publicly

January 19, 2012

It is an extraordinary indictment. In a new documentary about the English higher education reforms, Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, recalls a conversation with a "very senior policy figure": "He said that the problem with higher education is that ministers always know that they can get at least one or two vice-chancellors to agree with almost anything they suggest". For a community whose raison d'être is to question, it does not get more damning than that.

The coalition's reforms were described last week at a lecture at University College London by Oxford historian Howard Hotson as "the most radical experiment ever conducted on a major university system in the modern world". By replacing the vast bulk of public funding for university teaching with tripled tuition fees and by ushering in market principles in a bid to drive up standards, the government has enacted "the virtual privatisation of...an entire university system at the stroke of a pen", he said.

Armed with reams of data, Professor Hotson has built a compelling case that UK higher education and research is, pound for pound, the best in the world. So where is the evidence supporting the need for profound change?

Wherever one stands on the reforms, the lack of research underpinning them, and the lack of rigorous public scrutiny, has been disgraceful.

David Willetts, the universities minister, has claimed that the October 2010 Browne Report is "up there" with 1997's Dearing Report "as a serious, paradigm-shifting publication" - even though Dearing's 2,000 pages and five appendices contrast laughably with Browne's 61 pages. Last year, Times Higher Education established that the Browne review spent only £68,000 on research, with most of it going on an unpublished opinion survey.

Its flaws aside, Browne tried to set out a coherent long-term vision for higher education. But that was ignored by ministers, who chose to cherry-pick - Parliament tripled tuition fees months before there was even a White Paper to set out a grand government vision for the future of a sector that generates £59 billion. The policy document that finally limped out was a confusing fudge: a free market with capped student numbers; a reduction in state funding for teaching financed by even higher state spending on written-off student loans.

So as applications for a place at university in 2012-13 closed this week, no one really has any idea how the sector will look this time next year, let alone for the next generation.

During his lecture - marking the launch of A Manifesto for the Public University, a grass-roots attempt to publicly challenge the reforms - Professor Hotson suggested that vice-chancellors were "far more on our side than you'd be led to believe, but they don't feel they have a right to directly oppose government policy".

Our cover story charts the rise of the vice-chancellor's policy adviser - many of them charged with making waves in Whitehall and Westminster. But whatever is being done under the radar in the corridors of power, a vice-chancellor has an obligation, as a custodian of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, to gather all the evidence and, from that, develop a case for or against the desirability of reforms and offer it up for debate. And it is in the interests of democracy itself for university leaders to do that in the full view of an engaged public.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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