'Whiners'? No, we are simply doing our job 1

June 24, 2010

What exactly is "a realistic strategy for the future"? That is the core issue raised by Ann Mroz in last week's leader ("Stop with the gloom and doom", 17 June).

She accuses me of "hysteria and hyperbole" in a recent article in The Observer, and criticises some university leaders for "the loud whining the sector is now becoming notorious for".

In making my case, she thinks I was wrong to exhort "ministers to heed the future social and economic prosperity of the country" and to call for the student experience to be protected. Above all, she implies that higher education does not deserve to be treated "more benevolently" than the UK's hospitals and schools.

The editorial struck a contradictory note. On the one hand, it acknowledges the "tough calls" on public spending that will be made, but on the other deems any attempts to highlight the stark choices ahead as "moaning" and "whining". What then is Mroz's "realistic strategy" for standing up to these impending cuts?

Universities UK has to make the case for higher education in a variety of ways, of which the article in The Observer was just one strand. There are many others, not least Universities Week, and I see no contradiction in warning about the damage that could result from impending cuts while simultaneously praising the massive contribution universities make to the life of this country.

Of course, as far as hysteria and hyperbole go, the newspaper headline did not disappoint, with its warning of a "catastrophe". But as the editor of Times Higher Education no doubt is aware, writers rarely get a say in the headline-writing process.

To judge by UUK's bulging postbag in light of that particular article, it seems to have struck a chord. Highlighting the funding "valley of death" scenario the academy faces was a useful way to make the point to those in power that stark choices lie ahead.

Those who understand the public spending landscape are quite unequivocal that there will be choices in terms of where the axe falls. But comparing public spending on universities with that for front-line NHS and school services rather misses the point.

We are not asking to be treated "benevolently". Until this week's Budget, schools and the NHS have been protected from cuts to front-line spending; universities have never been in this position. Of course there are other very deserving recipients of public money, but my job and the job of UUK is to argue the case for higher education.

Therefore, if the charge is that we are warning about the serious consequences for our universities should long-term public funding cuts be made, then we plead guilty. As for the charge that I am engaged in "loud whining", perhaps Mroz should read the articles I have written in the national press over the past six months, or the text of any of the several dozen speeches I have delivered this year to conferences. No one could interpret them as simply "loud whining". They each make the case for the sector and show exactly how it contributes to the economy and society of the UK.

UUK follows a realistic strategy, comprising different tactics and messages for different audiences. The Observer article was a deliberate contribution to one part of the debate. It was written because I believe passionately that the major danger facing the sector is that the Treasury will require deeper cuts of it than other unprotected areas of public expenditure. The axe may swing more savagely because of the mandarins' belief that Lord Browne's review will provide substitute income: if Parliament then rejects the review's proposals, that really would be a disaster. If this happens, the finger would be pointed at UUK for failing to prevent it, and rightly so.

Since that outcome is a possibility, failing to sound the warning would be the opposite of a realistic strategy. Similarly, simply rolling over and accepting that higher education will take the brunt of "deep public spending cuts" would be a ridiculous message to come from the sector's representative body. In both cases, keeping quiet and sleepwalking into an uncertain future cannot be realistic options for UUK.

Steve Smith, President, Universities UK.

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