Leader: What price the soul of a university?

The Browne Review and the CSR were bold about funding but less robust in defending the purpose and spirit of higher education

October 28, 2010

The terms of reference for the review by Lord Browne of Madingley were “to analyse the challenges and opportunities facing higher education and their implications for student financing and support”. In other words, look at the money. This it has done admirably, and elements of the review have the potential to empower students and drive quality. David Willetts, the uni­ver­sities and science minister, says it is “up there” with the Robbins and Dearing reports as a “paradigm-shifting” document.

Parallels with the US system are much exaggerated. America’s academy does receive much more private funding than Britain’s (2.1 per cent of gross domestic prod­uct versus 0.6 per cent), but it also gets more public money, too (1 per cent versus 0.7 per cent).

However, as in many parts of the US, English universities have been hit by a big with­drawal of public funding. The reductions announced in last week’s Com­prehensive Spend­ing Review gave the impres­sion that the Browne report was designed to order by a govern­ment intent on cuts, which ultimately will affect the report’s ability to deliver. The package, in effect, offers a long-term solution to a short-term problem.

Probably the most fundamental and historic shift affects teaching, with funding switching from the public to the private sphere, putting “spending power directly in the hands of students”, Mr Willetts says. There is, of course, nothing wrong with giving students more say in their education, but as Vernon Bogdanor, research professor at King’s College London, argues in our cover story, “student contri­bu­tions to university finance should complement public funding, not obviate the need for it”.

But the change to teaching funding appears to be endorsed by the Browne committee as “a matter of prin­ciple, rather than an unfortunate consequence of the economic crisis”, as the Higher Education Policy Institute has noted. This should con­cern every­one. It is certainly paradigm-shifting: Sir Alan Langlands, head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, sees it as “a rapid move to an untested model starved of Hefce teaching grants”.

Most deprived will be the arts, humani­ties and social sciences, downgraded to “non-priority” status, a dis­as­ter for the nation’s intellectual and cul­tural life that undermines the very idea of the university.

Thirteen years ago, the terms of reference for the Dearing review were similar to those of Browne: “To make recommendations on how the purpose, shape, structure, size and funding of higher education, including support for students, should develop…recognising that higher education embraces teaching, learning, scholarship and research.”

Ron Dearing never lost sight of the purpose of university education: “throughout we have kept in mind the values that char­ac­ter­ise higher education and which are fundamental to any understanding of it”, he said in his foreword.

Quoting the poet John Masefield, he described the university romantically as “?‘a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways…will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning and will exact standards in these things.’ It must continue to be so.”

Can it possibly continue to be so?

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com

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