July 18, 2013

A golden anniversary that does not glister

We should give two cheers, not three, for the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report (“Here’s to class act that challenged tyranny of class in admissions”, Opinion, 11 July).

The report led to a massive expansion of higher education, making access dependent on ability rather than class. But this expansion led to three big mistakes.

First, students’ social status was undermined by the erosion of the value of grants and their eventual replacement with loans. Adequate grants in the 1960s and 1970s meant that most university students were equals, but this is no longer so because of growing dependence on family support.

Second, undergraduate courses were provided primarily in response to the number of applicants rather than economic need. In consequence, many graduates failed to find appropriate jobs. Equality of access to university has not been followed by equality of career opportunities.

Third, in the 1960s all universities were expected to be of similar academic, if not social, standard. Preferential funding has led to the emergence of “Oxbridge” as a divisively elite tier of higher education. Unequal access to the university system has been replaced by unjustifiable inequalities between institutions.

British universities have thrived in the past 50 years. However, the UK has become a much more unequal society, in marked economic decline relative to other countries. A major initiative such as Robbins needs to be judged by its effects on the nation, not on higher education institutions.

Frederic Stansfield

Appeal to reason

Geoffrey Alderman should have checked his facts before delivering his opinion (“Darkness visible”, 11 July).

I agree with him that Quality Assurance Agency reviews matter to providers, whether in terms of reputation, the impact on their licence to recruit international students, or both. These high stakes are precisely why we have introduced an appeals process.

Had Alderman asked, we could have told him that our professional indemnity insurance already covers all our reviewers. We could also have explained that our publication process follows both the spirit and the letter of the Freedom of Information Act. Being subject to the legislation would make no difference because we already publish all appeal outcomes.

If an appeal is unsuccessful, the decision is published immediately alongside the report. Rightly, if an appeal is upheld, the original review is set aside and the report is not published. To publish an appeal decision alone in these circumstances would not aid public understanding of the issues involved and might risk the impartiality of the new review, so we publish it alongside the review report, setting the full context.

The fact that this has happened in only one case so far is because only three appeals have been successful. In the remaining cases, the University of Southampton and the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, the appeal decisions will be published as promised alongside the new reports.

Anthony McClaran
Chief executive
Quality Assurance Agency

Disputed territory

Sir Howard Newby says that the University and College Union has “misrepresented” the current dispute at the University of Liverpool (“Standard terms, equal conditions”, Letters, 11 July). Regrettably, we must insist that it is Newby’s letter that is misleading.

Liverpool is imposing a new contractual requirement for bank holiday working for the majority of professional, managerial, specialist and senior administrative (PMSA) staff, with only single-time time off in lieu (Toil) when support staff will be compensated at triple time. It has also refused a contractual right to hour-for-hour Toil for staff working outside their contracted hours. A further matter of concern emerged only after the section 188 consultations had begun, when it became clear that the university intended to allow local managers to vary normal working hours from the 9am-5pm set out in the new contract of employment without staff consent.

Newby says that Liverpool is negotiating with the trade unions. Under the local recognition agreement between it and the UCU, Unite and Unison, all changes to terms and conditions must be negotiated rather than merely consulted upon. The matter of hours clearly comes under the category of “terms and conditions”, and formal negotiations were indeed under way. However, on 7 June university negotiators announced that they would invoke the section 188 procedures from the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act (1992), which are expressly designed for redundancy or dismissal situations. This means that Liverpool is proposing to issue dismissal notices to 2,803 staff (54 per cent of its workforce) to achieve its ends. Negotiations do not involve the threat to dismiss staff who do not sign a new contract put in front of them. Moreover, far from being “positive and constructive”, this approach has led to the first formal dispute between Liverpool and an academic union or association in the university’s long and distinguished history.

Newby also says that Liverpool will not be making any staff redundant as a result of the new contracts. So why has the university opened a voluntary disengagement scheme, normally designed for redundancy situations? It excludes PMSA staff, so the university may believe this means that ending their contracts is somehow different. However, even if there are no redundancies, this does not mean there will be no dismissals. In response to a question at an all-staff meeting on the day his letter was published, Newby confirmed that any member of staff who rejects the new contract will be dismissed.

We urge the vice-chancellor to apply the standards of excellence he champions for research and teaching to the approaches the university takes to its human resources management and industrial relations.

Roger Brooks
President, University of Liverpool branch
University and College Union

Regulated response

The Operating Framework for Higher Education in England, released on 11 July, sets out with admirable clarity practical proposals for holding things together now that plans for a Higher Education Act have been dropped and the existing legislative provisions are being stretched to breaking point (“we are constrained by the existing legislation at the present time”, notes the document drily). (“NUS and Hefce team up for regulation without legislation”, News, 11 July.)

The exercise of ministerial powers to create statutory instruments will need watching in this situation. There was quite a fight to restrict those powers in the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, restrictions recently tested by way of the government’s allocation of targeted funding through the Higher Education Funding Council for England. “I will be updating the education (student support) regulations,” says David Willetts, the universities and science minister, in his statement launching the framework. What else may be “updated” by this route?

The government is encouraging “provider diversity” to give students more choice and there are sound proposals to ensure that alternative providers have to pass muster to enter the sector. But it will be a rare applicant who consults the (welcome) planned Hefce register knowledgeably and spots that his choice is “not subject to the same oversight arrangements as designated higher education providers”, or knows how to make “enquiries about the quality of provision and other matters of potential interest”. How many 17-year-olds, noting that courses from their preferred providers are not “subject to the full operating framework”, will instantly apply elsewhere?

If something goes wrong and a student wants to complain, the discovery may come too late that although most providers will subscribe to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, “some alternative providers may not”. If “students, staff or other parties have concerns about a university or college that they believe require investigation, and where such concerns indicate serious systemic or procedural problems”, the Quality Assurance Agency “will investigate them in detail through its concerns procedure. Note that again this will not be relevant for any university or college which does not subscribe to the QAA or have Tier 4 status.”

If a designated course is de-designated or a provider fails altogether, Willetts says he has asked the funding council, in concert with the government and the sector, to look at options for developing a designation resolution process: not in place yet then. Well done Hefce and the Regulatory Partnership Group for quietly flagging all this up.

G.R. Evans
Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service

Social equation

Both your interview with Michael Sandel (“Moneyball and chains”, 11 July) and Fred Inglis’ enthusiastic review of Arts of the Political (“Surging currents of resistance”, Books, 11 July) raise awareness once again of the dangers posed by the near-total dominance of money and market economics in politics (and hence, by government writ, in academia and education). This is the number-one insoluble-looking problem - and cause - of our time. The “cause” is not against money and markets as such but against the desensitisation towards other values they have brought. We need to understand how this happened, and how any kind of intellectual and/or spirited intervention can help. The first pillar of wisdom is surely that it is not just money, but money plus maths plus microelectronics - the three Ms - that have captured the hopeful imagination of millions.

Digital microelectronics is hard to fault. This is surely mankind’s best technical hope for the future.

Money as an institution inevitably rests on social stability and confidence in the integrity of its keepers (the bankers). There are doubts about both but there is relatively little that thinking per se can do to help.

Maths is both the weak link in the triumvirate and the ultimate enforcer because it intimidates the masses, the political class and even most of the bankers. What abstruse maths is said to say, very few are minded to question.

So we are brought to the conclusion that the most urgent task is to demystify maths, to make its meaning and true social role widely known, and hence to neutralise the intimidation. Mathematicians have tended to resist any kind of re-examination of their hoary discourse: and they are right to insist that if this is done, it must be done to the highest standards. But it needs to be done. The 21st century needs a new form of maths education that self-evidently brings out the human meaning of the subject. That myopic, masochistic maths is still being dished up in classrooms might seem a long way from the battle with money dominance in society but it is the agent that underpins the pain.

Chris Ormell
Editor of Prospero

Consumer rights

My letter made John H. Arnold smile (“Contact assessment”, Letters, 11 July). His made me laugh. He argues that students are buying many hours of “notional contact” with their fees, which brings the cost down from £30 per hour to £7.50. I doubt they would be pleased to learn that they are being charged for the hours they spend studying alone, especially as this costs them extra in living expenses and the forfeiture of paid employment.

He goes on to argue that it is not good for students to see themselves as consumers. Does this mean they should not question what they get for their money? They are called tuition fees and that is what one would expect them to buy.

John Linfoot
Additional learning support
Bournemouth University

Gentlemen v Players

I am very puzzled that Geraldine Van Bueren thinks “an amateur event with no financial reward” is an argument that a sport is not elitist (“Making waves”, Opinion, 11 July). Amateurism at this level is the privilege of those who can afford it. It is why rugby developed two codes, one for the paid working class, the other for the unpaid middle and upper classes. Cricket didn’t bother, it just distinguished between the servants of the club, the paid Players and the Gentlemen.

Farah Mendlesohn
Anglia Ruskin University

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