A vice-chancellor has accused the authors of England’s Augar report of “sneering at the working classes” and “being cynical about people who want to better themselves by going to university”, claiming that “established sector” voices on its panel judge universities against an Oxbridge model.
Carl Lygo, vice-chancellor of Arden University and former vice-chancellor of BPP University, two for-profit institutions, told the audience at an event organised by London Higher that the report “felt like the established sector despising and looking down its nose at other parts of the sector”.
This was true of its “attack” on foundation courses, mounted “without any evidential base”, he told the event, part of London HE Week and hosted by PwC in London. The “achievement rate” for students on foundation courses was “much better than access courses”, Professor Lygo argued.
“It’s this pernicious, toxic debate: that somehow the elite universities are better than anyone else; that giving an opportunity to everyone is a bad thing; that universities are somehow profiting from giving opportunities to people,” he continued.
Professor Lygo criticised the Augar report’s use of graduate earnings data in its discussion of value. He referred to his own time studying for his A levels at Doncaster College, which he said as a higher education provider is “top of the list of colleges that offer the least value for money” on graduate earnings. But there were similar returns for other South Yorkshire colleges, reflecting the area’s low average earnings, he added.
“The [earnings] comparison pitches Doncaster against other colleges [across the UK]. It doesn’t look at the context in which Doncaster operates,” Professor Lygo said.
He continued: “It’s just a pernicious debate…about who should be going [to university] and who shouldn’t. When you look at that value for money, you’ve got to be incredibly careful that we don’t allow it to be captured just in commercial terms. Social mobility is about giving everybody a chance. My mum couldn’t read or write – she went to Doncaster College to learn how to read.”
He added: “We as educators need to push back on this constant comparison to everything being like an Oxford or a Cambridge. Of course, it’s going to destroy our economy if we become elitist in that way.”
In terms of the Augar panel members with a background in higher education, Baroness Wolf of Dulwich studied at the University of Oxford and is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London; Sir Ivor Crewe studied at Oxford and is master of University College, Oxford; while Edward Peck studied at the University of Bristol and is Nottingham Trent University vice-chancellor.
Professor Lygo criticised the “sneering at the working classes that came out of Augar”. He added that institutions “brave enough to come up with a model that’s going to help with widening participation shouldn’t be judged in the same way” and should not be judged “against the Oxford and Cambridge model”.
Asked what he would say to the next prime minister about higher education if given the chance, Professor Lygo replied: “Ignore most of Augar and don’t be cynical about people who want to better themselves by going to university.”
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