Film deems v-cs' attitude to reforms unhealthy

Acquiescence to Browne policies contrasted with NHS leaders' solidarity. John Gill writes

January 19, 2012

The supine nature of vice-chancellors, some of whom will agree to "almost anything" the government proposes, has been contrasted with the solidarity shown by leaders in the NHS in a new documentary analysing the recent higher education reforms.

I melt the glass with my forehead - produced by Martin McQuillan, professor of literary theory and cultural analysis and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, and Joanna Callaghan, lecturer in media, art and design at the University of Bedfordshire - critiques the Browne Review and subsequent changes to government higher education policy.

Among the commentators featured in the documentary is Sir Peter Scott, former vice-chancellor of Kingston University, who recounts a conversation with a "very senior policy figure".

"He said that the problem with higher education is that ministers always know that they can get at least one or two vice-chancellors to agree with almost anything they suggest. And he contrasted that to the health service, where there was a lot more solidarity," Sir Peter says.

The reforms are also criticised by Baroness Blackstone, former vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, who was a Labour education minister from 1997 to 2001.

She takes aim at the drive to introduce competition into the sector, pointing out that this is not the new idea that the coalition government seems to suggest.

"All this talk about how we need to introduce competition into the sector - there's already a lot of competition," she says. "We compete for students, we compete for money from donors, we compete for research funding, we compete for work with industry. It is not a system where everything is allocated from the centre."

There is further disquiet about the selective use of the Browne Review's recommendations by the coalition.

Nick Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, says: "Browne could have been modified so that the taxpayer cost of loans was dramatically reduced, which would have made it possible largely to set student numbers free, to have more places and more competition and a more vibrant sector, and to take some of the saved resources and to spend them earlier in the system to widen participation.

"All those potential gains have been given away by the political compromises."

The point is also picked up by Rajay Naik, a member of the Browne Review panel, who says that "of course" he would have preferred a more favourable response from the government.

"What we were very clear about doing was producing a report which was well informed, well thought out, which protected quality - enhanced quality, indeed - protected [and] enhanced participation and which was truly sustainable for the future.

"I think we delivered that. What politicians now go on and do is frankly a matter for them."

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