Leader: Standing on shaky ground

This year looks to be one in which divisions in the sector widen, leaving no one representing the needs of the academy as a whole

January 6, 2011

The new year has started as it will no doubt continue, with universities being taken to task over problems that they should have dealt with and seen off long ago. Issues that had been glossed over are returning to haunt a sector that is rapidly disintegrating in a distasteful display of naked partisan self-interest.

Universities have of late strived ineptly to present a unified public profile, but they now look more maladroit than ever. As autonomous institutions they resent outside interference, forgetting that their freedom presupposes responsibility - to their staff and to their students, current and future. Vice-chancellors have obfuscated and sidestepped as they swept legitimate public concerns under the carpet.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough, the chair of the now-defunct Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, had some unedifying encounters with vice-chancellors in the hearings that led to the August 2009 report on standards in the academy, Students and Universities. "We received a snooty response from the university sector, which amounted to 'Keep your nose out of our business'," he told a national newspaper reporting 2010 degree data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency along with the latest accusations of dumbing down.

That standards should rear their ugly head again ought not surprise a sector facing more scrutiny as tuition fee rises loom and as its cherished autonomy comes under assault from all directions.

Also returning for another airing is the demand that institutions reveal the "soft" A levels that they disregard in admissions decisions. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, wants a blacklist. If there are no banned subjects, institutions should say so explicitly. If there are preferred subjects, list them. Why do universities find it so hard to provide information that would help socially disadvantaged young people far more than the millions spent on widening participation initiatives? Perhaps because to do so would not provide that warm glow while salving middle-class academic consciences, for students would be helping themselves rather than relying on a patronising helping hand from a smug and protectionist university sector.

If the organisations representing the various members of the higher education community experienced tremors and cracks in their structures in 2010, they should brace for substantial shocks and chasms in 2011. The National Union of Students has seen divisions over the violence in the recent protests and a perceived lack of official support for student occupations, while at the University and College Union, already forced by members to defend its stance on pensions and pay claims, a battle for control is being waged by the Left and there is even the threat of a strike by the union's own staff. But the most worrying divisions are among the leaders of our institutions at Universities UK, which is struggling to hold together as the tuition fee issue splits its diverse constituents.

Amid such disarray, it is hard to be optimistic for the coming year. Can anyone say with certainty where higher education is going, what universities are for and who speaks for the interests of the academy as a whole? For a community that has always vaunted its collegiality, it is shameful that the higher up the ranks one looks, the less it seems in evidence.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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