Elect more academics to university boards, say public HE advocates

Academic freedom is under threat from forthcoming plans for higher education, says ‘alternative white paper’

June 13, 2016
Students raising hands during lecture
Source: iStock

A majority of university board members should be scholars elected by their peers, according to an “alternative white paper” that champions academic freedom.

To combat “corporate intrusion” into university governance, academic boards would be “composed of an elected majority of academic staff…who are not managers”, says “In Defence of Public Higher Education”, a manifesto composed in response to last month’s higher education White Paper.

At least 10 per cent of university boards – known as “academic boards”, “senates” or “congregations” at various institutions – would also come from the students’ union, with another 10 per cent elected from among technical and administrative staff, says the 37-page policy document, which is being launched at a Westminster reception on 13 June.

The self-described “alternative white paper on higher education” has been written by representatives from several organisations, including the University and College Union, the Campaign for the Public University and the Council for the Defence of British Universities.

Its proposals to increase institutional democracy are central to plans designed to safeguard academic freedom, reduce bureaucracy and monitoring, and roll back the “new model of higher education institution that sees the investment in human capital only as a private benefit”.

The paper was written, it says, in light of the “dismal lack of leadership by the various mission groups representing universities in the sector – for example, Universities UK and the Russell Group”, saying their “willing advocacy of a fee-loan model of funding (to avoid possible cuts) has abdicated their leadership role in a proper debate on the values of public higher education”.

One of its main targets is the proposed teaching excellence framework, which it says would be “disastrous” for public higher education because its costly bureaucracy would reduce funding for teaching, lead to “dumbing down” and discriminate against universities with a high number of working-class students who tend to earn less when they graduate.

There is little evidence to suggest that students are not happy with their teaching, the paper adds.

“The government is inventing a crisis to justify imposing a costly, bureaucratic system to increase its control over academics and students, turn universities into mere production lines for ‘workplace-ready’ employees and create a marketplace for the for-profit providers,” the document says.

The for-profit sector is the “principal beneficiary” of the White Paper, it adds, saying that ministers have failed to heed the cautionary tales emerging from the US about private providers.

“The White Paper is sanguine about public universities going ‘bust’ and seeks to prepare for their ‘exit’,” it says, adding that this has been arranged to ensure that for-profit providers “waiting in the wings" can access "cheap ‘infrastructure’ [by taking over] ‘ailing’ public institutions in new ‘private-public’ partnerships”.

With its plans for “stricter government control over universities in the name of the market”, the White Paper presents a risk to the “intrinsic meaning of ‘the university’ as well as the social benefits it has hitherto secured”, the paper concludes.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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Why does the UK seem to enjoy imitating the worst aspects of America?

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