'End soundbite-driven HE tinkering': v-c urges root-and-branch reform

Kingston's Scott says 'collapse of neo-liberalism' may present fresh opportunities, reports John Gill

October 23, 2008

"Managerialist bullshit", "false market rhetoric" and "low-level government tinkering" were among the targets skewered by a leading vice-chancellor this week.

Peter Scott of Kingston University said he believed that the state had a right to shape higher education, but that "it shouldn't attempt to do so by soundbite-driven tinkering".

Instead, he argued that the time may be right for "root-and-branch restructuring", as occurred in the 1960s with the creation of new universities. He suggested, as an example, that higher education could be reconfigured to support "vigorous regional strategies".

Professor Scott made the comments in the annual guest lecture of the Association of University Administrators, of which he is president.

He argued that the world economic crisis would lead to seismic shifts for higher education that may transform not only its structures and systems but the way in which it is viewed and administered politically, socially and culturally.

He said: "Who knows, maybe with the collapse of neo-liberalism, we may be able once again to talk the language of 'planning' and 'public policy' without embarrassment."

One theme of his lecture was the differentiation of the university sector, which he said now faced many more demands than in the past.

The "un-evidenced saloon-bar view", he said, was that greater differentiation between institutions was required to cope with this separation of roles. An alternative approach, he argued, was greater differentiation of mission within individual universities.

On whether the state, market or university should make these choices, he said: "I have more confidence in the ability of institutions to react to market challenges than I have in the intentions of politicians with their invented markets."

Professor Scott also criticised the funding regime, which was particularly notable as he was a member of the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England for six years from 2000 to 2006.

He said that while many elements of funding were differential, some mechanisms, such as the research assessment exercise, were "differential, but rather more opaquely and maybe less honestly".

Noting that the bulk of funding was formulaic - for example, teaching funding and student fees - he warned that "standard formulas encourage standard behaviour".

He said the solution to some of these problems, and to stop funding streams "cutting across each other", might be to reinforce the block grant and strengthen institutional autonomy.

He said: "Higher education funding is a bit like a map of the Balkans - lots of state-lets with names such as STEM, ELQ and HEIF."

Concluding, he said: "Many of our systems, for funding, governance, quality and so on, and also our practices and assumptions, may no longer be fit for purpose.

"Most of them reward conformity rather than promoting pluralism ... There is a place for political action, but what we need is decisive, high-level and strategic action, not the kind of low-level tinkering we have seen in recent years."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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