Funding challenge 'may leave little time to spare' for the 'Big Society'

The threats and opportunities for universities arising from the government's "Big Society" agenda came under scrutiny at a conference at Royal Holloway, University of London.

April 21, 2011

Speaking at the event, "A Pedagogy of Civic Engagement for Higher Education", Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said there was "an awful lot already happening in our universities related to the Big Society and core to their mission". She was adamant that "the shift in policy probably won't make a huge difference unless the existence of particular institutions comes under threat".

Nonetheless, Ms Dandridge raised some concerns. An increasing stress on "student experience" should help to drive up quality but would put more focus on private rather than public good. On issues such as access, it remained essential to track trends at a national level and, if necessary, formulate a collective response, she said.

The discussion followed a row over references to the Big Society in the Arts and Humanities Research Council's delivery plan.

Critics have claimed that the council's latest funding settlement was dependent upon it funding research into Prime Minister David Cameron's pet policy, an allegation the AHRC strongly denies.

Others have suggested that, if there were no quid pro quo, the references to the Big Society were evidence of the council pandering to the government in an attempt to keep on its good side.

John Annette, pro vice-master of Birkbeck, University of London, said he was a believer in "the idealism of the Big Society" but added it was "a pity it had been introduced at a time of major public sector cuts".

Although they could not teach community engagement, universities should build long-term links with local communities and provide students with learning opportunities through volunteering and other forms of service, he argued.

What remained problematic were the incentives for academics, given that "any rewards for community learning are in heaven, while promotion depends on research".

Lord Norton of Louth, professor of government at the University of Hull, argued that the Big Society would "break or weaken the vertical relationship of government and higher education and place the emphasis on the horizontal relationship of universities and the local community".

Although the large number of students volunteering to do charity work, for example, made universities "long-standing exemplars of the Big Society", they still had a long way to go. In addition, they were widely regarded as "too responsive to government and funding bodies, and located in, but still not as integrated as they could be, with the local community".

Despite being sympathetic to universities increasing their community engagement, Lord Norton stressed that this was "not something that can be dictated from above (by government), at least not if one is truly implementing the essential principles of the Big Society".

He was also sceptical about how universities could "assist the local community" without encroaching on their capacity to deliver the core functions of teaching and research.

"Are the paradigmatic changes now facing universities in terms of the funding regime not going to absorb the time and energy of university senior management, and indeed the academic community, to the extent that there is not time for engagement with the community beyond the university, and certainly no time to engage in voluntary work?" he asked.

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