Cambridge and Oxford savage higher education White Paper

The government has come in for fierce criticism from the universities of Cambridge and Oxford in strongly-worded submissions to the White Paper consultation.

September 30, 2011

In its submission, published online today, Cambridge’s council warns that ministers risk damaging the global reputation of Britain’s universities and says it is “dismayed” that the White Paper has no “overall vision and strategy” for the sector.

It warns that higher education “should not be reduced to a utilitarian equation of cost and personal financial benefit” and also says it is “regrettable” that the government’s approach to reform “has been a cause of alienation rather than one of inclusion”.

One of the paper’s most critical passages is aimed at immigration policy, “aspects of which have had (and still have) the capacity to inflict serious damage on the international reputation and missions of our universities”.

Oxford’s submission – seen by Times Higher Education – warns that the White Paper proposals “will bring turbulence to the higher education sector which will be felt for many years” and “demonstrate little thought about the links between research and teaching”.

“Students are partners in shaping their learning, not consumers of a narrowly defined educational product,” it states.

Oxford also raises concerns that “implementation of the model of ‘consumer choice’…will actually hamper attempts to widen access, hindering rather than enhancing social mobility”.

The university explicitly states that despite the government’s proposals to free up competition for A-level students with grades of AAB and above, it has no intention of expanding its undergraduate intake.

It also stresses that the system would effectively leave it unable to recruit below AAB, which it says is “a clear intervention in the university’s autonomy to decide whom to admit, as well as in potential conflict with the increased admission of those from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

Both submissions also attack the government for not adequately addressing the issue of postgraduate provision.

“The focus of the White Paper on undergraduate students as the ‘heart of the system’ and its equation of ‘students as customers’ ignores the crucial links between undergraduate and postgraduate education and how research-informed education characterises the student experience in many universities,” the Cambridge document states.

Elsewhere, the documents address the White Paper’s proposals on the future regulation of the sector.

While they welcome a few aspects, both Oxford and Cambridge say they lack confidence in the government actually cutting red tape and question whether autonomy will be protected.

Oxford says that while it welcomes the White Paper’s commitment to autonomy and academic freedom, “we find that the proposals…persistently contradict that guarantee and threaten to overwhelm it through regulation”.

It also says in the submission that it has “no intention” of implementing the Higher Education Achievement Report – the proposed replacement for degree classifications – “unless evidence of demand for it from our students or employers emerges”.

Critiques of government policy from Oxford and Cambridge academics have not been unusual in recent months, but the documents mark a watershed as they have been agreed upon by the institution’s councils, which include the vice-chancellor of each university.

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