Cable ignores the gloss by focusing on private ‘dross’

Private not-for-profits don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush as some Johnny-come-latelys, says Phil Deans

October 13, 2014

When Vince Cable told a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference that some of the alternative providers recognised since 2012 “have been very good, really outstanding, innovative institutions” I’m sure he was referring to where I work – we are in his constituency after all.

Sadly though the bad news wins, and all the talk will be about “the dross”.  Even though we have been around for decades, we will get bundled in with dubious new private colleges that have proliferated since the government decided to increase the number of private colleges designated for students with access to Student Loans Company funding.

We will endure bizarre accusations that we exist to serve the under-qualified wealthy, despite modest tuition fees and entry criteria on a par with our sister institutions in the state sector.

It’s somehow implied that our professional academic staff, many of whom have international reputations in their fields and research records to die for, can’t be top notch or they’d be working in a ‘normal’ university.

 But in practice, how are our standards different from those in the state sector? “Good” universities in the Russell Group are still recruiting a month after clearing and offering free flights, film passes and even bedding to woo high achievers.

We have to survive on our reputation, and so simply offer scholarships based on need and ability.

I have to worry about what awaits these late arrivals when one vice-chancellor (too risk averse to give a name) tells a national newspaper that “prostituting oneself in this way degrades the whole experience”.

 It’s time to abandon prejudice and misconceptions about ‘private’ universities, and grasp the reality that academics and managers across the sector have to learn to deal with increased marketisation and commodification. This trend will only grow given the inevitable changes to tuition fees we will see after next year’s general election. 

Over in the ‘private’ sector we may even be able to offer advice and examples of best practice on how to survive in this new environment without lowering standards or passing on to undergraduates the worst effects of the commodification of higher education.

 We’re only ‘private’ in that we are not directly funded by government. It’s also worth remembering that no English university gets the majority of its funding directly from government any more.  We’re certainly not in it for the money: we’re not-for-profit. 

We have to generate a surplus, but that surplus is not lining any pockets: it is reinvested in staff and facilities, in research, and most of all in educating our students. And we can’t run a loss: there’s no government to bail us out.

Yes, we are different. But difference has value. In our case our student body numbers less than 2000.  For us, teaching is what it’s all about – not the irritant that diverts Research Excellence Framework-centric academics from their ‘real’ work in research. Set apart from the mainstream funding system and the tyranny of REF, our academics can, and do, make teaching a priority while being able to research to their own schedules and agenda, not those of the government of the day.

I am immensely proud that I could tell the cohort of excellent young academics we recruited last year: “Your research is important, so don’t rush to publish: the REF doesn’t matter here, so go to press when it’s ready, not when it’s expedient for the accountants”.

In the mainstream higher education sector, the amount of lecture and tutorial has barely changed over the last six years despite a nine-fold hike in annual tuition fees.

I hope I’m not alone in being concerned when a brilliant academic at an excellent institution, Sir Andre Geim, says “I don’t like students very much. They come absolutely ignorant and they are not grown up yet as interesting people.’

But then you don’t win a Nobel Prize by putting your undergraduates first. That approach to students may not be a bad thing if you are at the cutting edge and your research changes the world, but most research isn’t at this lofty level.  It is certainly not our approach.  

Perhaps it’s time to ask whether our handful of world-class universities should even bother with undergraduates. World class now means world class in research output. The ‘best’ universities draw students and money away from the rest of the sector when clearly their priorities are research, not delivering a world class undergrad experience. There’s a good argument that teaching funding should go to universities devoted to, well - teaching.

 Escaping from the disciplining impact of the REF also frees the university to teach across boundaries, and escape from the “single honours” straightjacket which serves to perpetuate oppressive focus over the freedom of breadth. 

We’re a liberal arts university and offer a curriculum that’s hard to find in mainstream institutions in the UK. We embed in our general education curriculum the skills our students need for the next stage of their careers and to lead fulfilling lives, and we require them to achieve in those subjects. We are a university that teaches maths to film studies majors, and drama to economists. 

Want to study Arabic with that, or Mandarin?  Go ahead. All our students take maths classes, all must demonstrate scientific literacy to graduate, and we teach them all to write proper.

It’s not for everyone. While they are here our students grumble about it, so we explain why it matters and press on with educating: we may be ‘private’ but our students are our students, never our customers. And we believe we are getting it right.  Our graduates are scattered around the world, achieving extraordinary things. But whether they’re working in politics or industry, performing in theatre, exhibiting art, working for the United Nations or a dotcom start-up, or doing the most important job of all and being a parent, the feedback we receive is the same: “I get it now – thank you for that maths class/theatre workshop/internship.  And thank you for caring about teaching”. 

The ‘not-for-profits’ are making a valuable ‘public’ contribution to UK higher education, and hopefully my public sector colleagues will see this as something that we all benefit from.

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Reader's comments (1)

At the beginning of my academic career in the late 1960's, relatively few students went to the traditional type of university. Most chose or were sponsored by employers at colleges and polytechnics that offered part time professionally accredited courses such as the HNC, professional exams and similar, tailored to a technical or vocational career. Demonstrably most students today are also similarly motivated and seek out universities that primarily offer degree programmes accredited by the Professional Societies and Institutes. Also I recall the many of universities of those days focused on teaching, with research almost a support or supplementary activity for PhD training and staff development, and perhaps still represents a viable model for most. The advent of the RAE has changed all that, and is apparently causing a narrowing into a small group of specialist research intensive universities and associated research institutes, that perhaps should best focus on graduate student training for high quality research work.

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