Council launches its bid to defend UK universities

The Council for the Defence of British Universities has officially launched with a call for members, funding and ideas.

November 14, 2012

Eminent academics gathered at the inaugural meeting at the British Academy in London on 13 November to discuss how the group - founded to campaign for university autonomy, freedom from short-term economic concerns and education for its own sake - will progress.

Sir Keith Thomas, former president of the British Academy and a member of the council, said that although the problems were generally understood, the challenge would be to agree on what could be done about it.

"We must be as constructive as possible. We must not attack any particular policy without having a sensible policy to put it in its place," said the historian, who was primarily responsible for drawing up the council's manifesto.

The launch marked the beginning of a mass recruitment campaign that he said should include not just academics and students but members of the general public.

Sir Keith added that the CBDU, which was originally formed out of the University of Oxford, planned to increase recruitment from Scotland and Northern Ireland and make its steering committee "more representative of the diversity of today's universities".

Founding members at the event included Dame Antonia Byatt, Richard Dawkins, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Sir Simon Jenkins, and former science minister Lord Waldegrave of North Hill.

The council's initial 65-strong membership includes 16 peers from the House of Lords plus a number of prominent figures from outside the academy, including the broadcaster Lord Bragg of Wigton and Alan Bennett.

Speaking at the meeting, members lamented changes to UK universities such as increased fees, the introduction of the "impact agenda" within research and a tendency to treat universities as businesses and students as consumers.

Suggestions by members for some of the council's first actions included pressing for the removal of the higher education brief from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Sir John Meurig Thomas, one of the UK's most prominent chemists, also said the council should write to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to ask it to rescind its policy of including "national importance" among its grant selection criteria.

Meanwhile, Professor Dawkins raised some eyebrows with his suggestion that "dead wood" - academics who have run out of steam in terms of research and teaching - could be encouraged to take up university administrator roles.

This would "kill two birds with one stone" by freeing up positions for younger academics and ensuring that administrators were people who understood university values, he said.

Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at Oxford and chair of the steering committee, concluded that the defence of universities would be a cause which will be won or lost in the public arena.

"We need to remind the general public what universities are for, why we need them in something like their current form more than ever, and why everyone has a stake in preventing them from subjection to political and economic considerations," he said.

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