An effective response to a dystopian vision

May 21, 2015

What does the recent general election result presage for UK higher education (“Stand by for deeper cuts, higher fees and a battle over Europe”, News, 14 May)? It means a continuation of recent course and speed, namely: removing the tuition fee cap, thus further stratifying the sector; more deregulation and further pickings for the private providers; breaking up national bargaining on employment terms and conditions; intensifying research excellence framework pressure through performance management, thus skewing research to serve a political agenda; and entrenching the consumerist distortion of the academy through more National Student Survey-style “assessments”. We can expect more commercial and political attacks on academic freedoms; the elimination of academic governance in favour of corporate interests and “brand identity”; and further differentiation between colleagues in stable employment and those on casual contracts. The overall effect will be to undermine the universities’ capacity for genuine critical engagement.

These changes will fundamentally alter the nature of higher education in the UK and will reshape what it means to be a scholar and a student. As such, they represent the demise of the UK’s position in the world of higher education, learning, scholarship and research.

At present, as scholars and academics, we are not in a good position to resist the implementation of this dystopian vision. Our initiatives in the academy (the Council for the Defence of British Universities and the Campaign for the Public University) have done important work to inform staff and students, as well as the general public, of what’s been going on since 2010, but without significant policy effects. The University and College Union has impressive policies against the commercialisation of the sector and performance management but has been unable to turn the tide, and it has been weakened by successive defeats on pensions and pay.

There is a clear paradox here, since the majority of us are opposed to this destruction. We have a duty, therefore, to identify what is under threat, and what an effective response might be.

The future of higher education in the UK is in the balance. Now is the time to convene to diagnose the problem, to develop a strategy to defend the sector, and to explain this to the wider society. We urge colleagues to plan a London conference in the autumn to resist this impending disaster. People interested should contact us at heconvention2.wordpress.com.

Tom Hickey (University of Brighton UCU)
John Holmwood (University of Nottingham, and Campaign for the Public University)
Sean Wallis (University College London, and national executive committee and London region)
Thomas Docherty (University of Warwick, and Council for the Defence of British Universities)
Miriam David (Institute of Education)
Priyamvada Gopal (University of Cambridge)
Bob Brecher (University of Brighton)
Adrian Budd (London South Bank University UCU)
Dennis Leech (University of Warwick)
Saladin Meckled-Garcia (University College London UCU)
Kate Chedgzoy (Newcastle Univeristy)
Des Freedman (Goldsmiths, University of London UCU)
Jeff Duckett (Queen Mary University of London)
Lucie Clapp (University College London)
Jane Rendell (University College London)
Melissa Terras (University College London)
Jim Wolfreys (King’s College London UCU)
Mike Otsuka (London School of Economics)
Richard Farndale (University of Cambridge)
Patricia Waugh (Durham University)
Jane Hardy (University of Hertfordshire)
Carlo Morelli (University of Dundee, and national executive committee)
Malcolm Povey (University of Leeds)
Martin McQuillan (Kingston University, and Council for the Defence of British Universities)

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