Letters

April 25, 2013

Anti-austerity? Come join the resistance

We are a group of people working in higher education who are increasingly alarmed by the government’s austerity programme and are increasingly determined to campaign against it.

The coalition has introduced the most far-reaching programme of cuts and austerity witnessed in the UK for some 90 years. We have seen pay cuts across the public sector, the marketisation of the NHS and swingeing cuts in welfare, public services and housing, including, most recently, the “bedroom tax” - all of which will hit the poorest section of the population the hardest.

In higher education, we have seen the trebling of tuition fees, the scrapping of public funds for the teaching of the arts, humanities and social sciences, and a general emphasis on reorienting universities to be places where “customers” learn only how to be “employable”. Latest figures show that applications for undergraduate places in 2013-14 are down by 5 per cent on 2011-12 (nearly 8 per cent for applications from England), and the mission group Million+ recently argued that the economic cost of higher tuition fees is actually 6.5 times greater than any potential savings to the Treasury.

In response to the disastrous austerity policies of the government, a number of unions, anti-cuts organisations and individuals have supported the call for a new body, the People’s Assembly against Austerity, that aspires to build a movement for social justice and to coordinate a strategy for resistance to the cuts. We urge you to join us in Westminster Central Hall on Saturday 22 June.

Des Freedman, Goldsmiths, University of London and co-editor, The Assault on Universities
Michael Bailey, University of Essex and co-editor, The Assault on Universities
John Holmwood, University of Nottingham and co- founder, Campaign for the Public University
Priya Gopal, Churchill College, Cambridge
and 62 others

Geography and economics

In setting the scene for his analysis (“Beware! Hazards ahead”, 18 April), Sir Steve Smith refers to universities as “anchor institutions in local economies” and to “the old adage that there is only one thing better in your city than having a university, and that is having two”. But he does not follow through on the political consequences of this statement, for example the possibility of vulnerable institutions and vulnerable places coinciding.

Smith refers to the fact that universities fall within the budget of the hard-pressed Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but does not make a link to the review to be led by Sir Andrew Witty, chancellor of the University of Nottingham and GlaxoSmithKline’s chief executive officer, into how to forge stronger links between universities and local economies (“Build local networks to capture EU cash”, News, 28 March).

My impression is that Vince Cable, the business secretary, and the Treasury are looking to universities to play a leading role in rebalancing the UK economy sectorally and geographically, building on the government’s response to Lord Heseltine’s review (which establishes a single pot of funding for local economic development, matching the large slice of the £3.75 billion allocated by the European Union to bolster sub-national innovation in the UK).

Could it be that universities, the parts of BIS concerned with innovation and the European Regional Development Fund are talking to each other in the light of the forthcoming spending round and considering targeted funding to universities and places? If this is the case, what does it imply for a higher education policy that hitherto has been indifferent to the geography of winners and losers?

John Goddard
Emeritus professor of regional development
Newcastle University

On so many levels

Mary Curnock Cook is right to point out the significance of Level 3 for higher education (“Applying changes”, Opinion, 18 April). She is also correct when she says that “it is difficult to find an official definition of Level 3 qualifications”. The reason it is difficult is not because there isn’t one - it is because there are several and you have to search quite hard to find them all.

Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “official”, but by my reckoning there are at least four “frameworks” in the UK that define Level 3: the Qualifications and Credit Framework; the National Qualifications Framework; the Northern Ireland Credit Accumulation and Transfer System; and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework. To add to the complexity, some UK universities offer their own Level 3 qualifications. And unless you are a Eurosceptic, you might also want to refer to the European Qualifications Framework, too. So many frameworks! Perhaps it is not surprising, as Cook points out, that when you try to find a Level 3 definition on the Ofqual or Department for Education websites, you are given a bit of a runaround.

Where I disagree with Cook is in her rather Anglocentric implication that if only Ofqual and DfE were to get their acts together and define Level 3, the problem would be solved. Even if that happened (and don’t hold your breath) it would only deal with England, leaving Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with their own definitions.

However, I do agree with her that universities should respond to the DfE consultation on Level 3 qualifications.

Mike Farmer
Farmer Research Associates
Cheltenham

Satisfied customers

Readers of “Posh spice up CVs to gain edge at post-92s” (News, 11 April), which covered the status anxiety of some upper-middle-class students over not getting into Russell Group universities, might be interested in learning more about the study from which the finding emerged.

The Paired Peers project, a Leverhulme Trust-funded collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, is a qualitative longitudinal study following a cohort of students through the years of their degrees (details of our many findings can be obtained on our website).

Given the current funding situation, one finding that may be of particular interest is that our participants considered themselves part of a “degree generation”; despite considerable concerns about fee rises, the students believed that having a degree was vital for survival in a competitive economy. Most felt that going to university was a must, whatever the cost.

Moreover, the students at both institutions were extremely satisfied with their courses. In the first year, asked to rate their university experience, 95 per cent of participants at UWE and 86 per cent at Bristol scored it seven or higher. In the third year, 68 per cent at UWE and 71 per cent at Bristol thought their course and support was good or very good (with a mean score of four out of five).

Of course, this is a qualitative project so the numbers are small, but this does support our qualitative evidence of the satisfactory nature of the vaunted “student experience” offered by the two universities.

Harriet Bradley and Richard Waller
On behalf of the Paired Peers team
University of Bristol and UWE

Digital measurement

I can only thank Times Higher Education for consistently transmitting from the academic blogosphere via its THE Scholarly Web. I have been writing loosely academic perspectives on my own blog since 2005. All that perspiration, all that inspiration is paying off, despite all those hand- wringing meetings with line managers who “recommended” that this “output comes to a close”.

I’m not alone. Look: there’s University of Sydney scholar Deborah Lupton with This Sociological Life; Dave Beer, senior lecturer at the University of York and author of the Thinking Culture blog; and the lovely (if annoyingly spelled) danah boyd, the US social media scholar. All demand good and regular online readership. But what is the possible evidence of impact?

In a conversation over coffee last week with my favourite English literature professor, he concluded: “I get more readers (more than 1,000 from the States alone) to one of my reviews on TripAdvisor, and that took 10 minutes to compose, than my latest output in a 4* journal.”

And he’s not alone.

The thing is, just as every institution needs a serious measure of its mark of progress and ranking, the same should be true of digital outputs. However, they are often overlooked, ignored or remain poised for “impact”, which makes the whole process feel like it is waiting for the right Instagram filter.

Nevertheless, I have to tell you that I will continue to compose my little blog, regardless of whether it is high impact or not. Surely 50-plus daily readers is enough?

Mariann Hardey (@thatdrmaz)
Lecturer in marketing
Durham University

The market has spoken

John Duffy, registrar of the University of Sussex (my workplace), argues that we have a moral obligation to give our students better services at a better price in return for their high fees (“A community challengedor a global best-in-class”, Opinion, 18 April). He thinks that he knows best what students want. But the first rule of the market, the rules of which we are now supposed to be playing by, is that the customer is always right. In the instance of the Sussex outsourcing dispute, our customers are telling us what they want (or don’t want) quite clearly. Moral obligations aside (which surely extend to employees as well as customers), perhaps it would even be good business practice to pay attention to their wishes?

Nicholas Till
Leverhulme research fellow
School of Media, Film and Music
University of Sussex

Best kept secret is out

The potential for collaborative procurement to help close the gap between projected income and costs could be described as the sector’s best kept secret, so it was refreshing to see it revealed in the recent article by Nick Petford and Andy Davies (“Stuff and fiscal sense”, Opinion, 11 April).

The human resources departments of around three-quarters of UK universities are already in the know thanks to the long-established Educational Competencies Consortium, which operates as a not-for-profit company creating and sourcing role analysis, job evaluation and reward products and services. Interestingly, the ECC’s development was led by HR rather than procurement professionals.

By shining a light on successful arrangements such as these, the sector can develop effective new models. As with other forms of collaboration such as mergers, it is far better for the sector to investigate this itself than wait to be compelled to do so.

Nicholas Johnston
Chief executive
ECC

Darwinian selection

The proposed arrangements for research publication in light of the Finch report would seem to suggest a new hierarchy for academics. We already appear to have goldfinches and greenfinches, but what of those whose research isn’t worth publishing chaffinches? And those who habitually deliver less than they are wont to claim bullfinches? I remain uncertain, though, about the role of the twite.

Peter Williams
Malvern

Red is the colour

In “Resolving to do better” (Opinion, 11 April), Rob Behrens attributes the following quote to Mao Zedong: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse.”

That was actually said by Deng Xiaoping. Mao would have been more likely to have said: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat catches a mouse or not, as long as it is red.”

Ros Allen
University of Surrey

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