Anti-university narrative ‘politically motivated’, say UK v-cs

Institutional leaders tell survey that current avalanche of criticism ‘lacks substance’

January 18, 2018
Fighting knights
Source: Alamy
‘Besieged’: ‘the political narrative now is that universities are a bit of a problem’

Nearly nine out of 10 vice-chancellors believe that the current avalanche of criticism being directed at UK universities is politically motivated, according to a survey.

While higher education institutions are facing negative headlines over executive pay, freedom of speech and value for money, the poll of 49 vice-chancellors by PA Consulting found that 88 per cent of respondents believed that the criticism reflected “current politics, not substantive issues”.

A majority of respondents (61 per cent) believed that the problems cited were of the government’s own making, with only 43 per cent agreeing that there was substance to the concerns being raised.

Vice-chancellors suggested that the current treatment of universities represented revenge for their strong opposition to Brexit, a Conservative response to Labour’s success in courting the student vote with the promise of free tuition, and comeuppance for institutions’ perceived immunity to public-sector austerity.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of respondents – 86 per cent – agreed that the onus was on sector leaders to propose solutions.

Paul Woodgates, PA’s head of education, said that university leaders felt “under siege”.

“Before the [2017 general] election, universities were still seen as one of the jewels in the crown of UK plc, and suddenly we seem to have moved to a world where nothing is different but the political narrative is that universities are a bit of a problem: they don’t provide value for money, their teaching quality is not very good, and vice-chancellors are overpaid,” he said.

“Most of our respondents felt that this is fundamentally politically driven by the fact that Labour did well courting the youth vote and the Tories have responded to that, but there was also a feeling that the sector hasn’t done a very good job of responding to that and needs to be more proactive.”

The survey was conducted as the government prepares to conduct a major review of higher education funding in England, and it found widespread apprehension among vice-chancellors about the reforms that this might bring. Nearly nine in 10 (89 per cent) said that a reduction in the cap on undergraduate tuition fees would be damaging, while variable fees based on either institutional performance or graduate earnings were a concern for three-quarters of respondents (75 and 80 per cent, respectively).

Seventy-seven per cent of vice-chancellors said that the abolition of fees, a return to direct funding and the reintroduction of student number controls would be damaging, although nearly one in five (19 per cent) said that this would be “manageable”.

Mr Woodgates said that to influence the policy debate, universities needed to ensure that the local appreciation of the work that many universities do in their communities and regional economies was reproduced on a national level.

“The sum of the parts is quite different from the individual constituents, which shows how individual universities have managed their individual positions quite well but the sector as a whole doesn’t seem to have replicated that,” he said.

“The sector has got locked into a position of responding to a political narrative rather than asserting their own narrative about the value they add: in relation to research, but also in relation in education, [and] the fact that they are very important players in social and economic development.”

Meanwhile, the survey found widespread concern among vice-chancellors about the outlook for UK universities over the next few years. Financial security and resilience was identified as being a major risk for all providers by 41 per cent of respondents, while 51 per cent said that it was a major risk for some institutions.

Eighty-nine per cent of respondents said that the ability to meet planned student recruitment targets would be a major risk for some or all institutions, while attracting international talent was identified as a risk by 92 per cent.

Respondents said that the sector would be reshaped by an increasingly competitive student recruitment environment in which the overall pool of applicants – domestic and international – was flat at best and might even be shrinking.

One respondent said that the sector was “at a pivot point. The very strong are getting stronger while the very weak are under considerable threat. Those in the middle are trying to figure out whether to stick or twist. There could be carnage.”

Although only 12 per cent of respondents thought that significant numbers of institutional failures or closures were highly likely over the next five to 10 years, 47 per cent felt they were quite possible. More likely scenarios were takeovers and mergers (highly likely: 25 per cent; quite possible: 43 per cent) and a shrinking of recruitment and course choices (highly likely: 25 per cent; quite possible: 57 per cent). 

Commenting on the report, Mike Boxall, a higher education expert at PA, said that universities could no longer rely on “repeating the traditional things” cited by vice-chancellors as evidence of their institutions’ excellence.

“The starting point has to acknowledge that there is substance in the criticisms, and acknowledging there is a viewpoint that isn’t about international excellence and league tables – that there are much more important national and community concerns about access, the prospects of young people, the quality of the workforce, and whether universities are seen to be engaging with these debates, rather than arguing about protecting fees and minimising the extent to which they are regulated,” Mr Boxall said.

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Reader's comments (1)

Universities cannot trust the government to provide adequate funding for HE, even though we don't like the 'commercial' relationship with students engendered by fees at least we know what our income will be. The government needs to rebuild trust before proposing any changes. Comments about Vice-Chancellors' pay are just part of the endemic widening of the gap between most employees and senior executives, they are no worse that leaders in other spheres who are paid disproportionately more than other people in the same organisation.

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