Alison Wolf

May 30, 2003

Since winning scarce resources is what matters, UUK is unlikely to do anything to rock the government policy boat.

Higher education policies are diverging at enormous speed under devolution, which makes the future of Universities UK look increasingly uncertain.

Personally, I don't see why we should care. The organisation is almost a caricature of fearful, timid state-dependent bureaucracy, preferring "reasonable" compromise to any clear principles. Almost all it can manage to agree on is the desirability of more money from the taxpayers, plus the sort of expensive and pointless rebranding (from CVCP to UUK) that recently made the Post Office such a laughing stock.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, vice-chancellors fell in line, with hardly a murmur of protest, as the Treasury imposed centralised planning and annual grants with ever-changing strings attached; as tenure was abolished; and as unprecedented bureaucratic inspections of "quality" were introduced. The history of the Quality Assurance Agency, in particular, is an extraordinary illustration of just how supine and fearful our highly paid dignitaries have become.

In its heyday, the QAA imposed enormous burdens of paperwork and organisation on overworked staff in underfunded institutions. It did so in pursuit of outcomes that were pointless, unrealisable or both. Neither was this exactly a secret. The whole sector was in uproar.

This newspaper did a superb job of monitoring the apparently unstoppable accretion of directives, regulations, data requirements and glosses on how points would be awarded in inspections. The broadsheet press carried articles showing how completely one's "success" in a QAA inspection depended not on delivering good teaching, but on whether one was good at paperwork and "submissions" - a rather telling term. Journalists (from left and right) rose to attack the whole philosophy of "quality" inspection: and what did the vice-chancellors do?

Well actually, pretty much nothing. If they had been willing to put even a few fingers above the parapet, I believe change would have come sooner (and a lot more thoroughly) than it did. In fact, a peasants' revolt broke the logjam. The London School of Economics' academic board, by an absolutely overwhelming majority, instructed its director to move towards immediate withdrawal from all QAA engagements, if this could be done legally under Higher Education Funding Council for England funding arrangements, and to engage all governors and council in active campaigning against the QAA regime. As they did so, LSE administrators ran round in consternation and dismay. Yet, just a matter of weeks later, the LSE stood unscathed and it was the QAA that was being altered.

Why is UUK so timorous? In part, it is because the sector is now so big and so diverse that there are rather few policies and alternatives that benefit even a majority of institutions, let alone all of them. What we have is a huge federation of institutions that are constantly competing with each other for a larger share of their paymaster's largesse. So, if they cannot actually agree on any clear policies, they can at least go for more or less content-free consensus, rather than public feuding.

But there is more to it than that. The QAA debacle was one area where the whole sector had common cause. This is hardly Hitler's Germany: you don't lose your job for defending your colleagues, so what were the vice-chancellors afraid of? It is a truly depressing, because probably significant, fact that all five of the senior academics who led the LSE revolt had non-British backgrounds.

You can see the same individual timidity in responses to the higher education white paper. A good number of vice-chancellors agree strongly with many of its general proposals. A strong, clear UUK response can hardly be expected, given the amount of differential winning and losing in prospect. But surely some of those individual vice-chancellors (and councils) who support the policy could stand up and say so? If they aren't prepared to make the case, why do they expect backbench MPs to support it? Similarly, many see the latest Conservative proposals to abolish all fees as a destructive and cynical move, designed simply to outflank the Liberal Democrats and win back middle-class votes in ex-Tory strongholds. Why not make that point, not off-record but strongly and publicly?

It was, I believe, Samuel Johnson who declared that courage was the greatest virtue, "because unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other". Dr Johnson would not, I submit, see today's vice-chancellors as fit champions for a great sector in crisis.

Alison Wolf is professor of education at the Institute of Education, London.

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