Let's join the debate and stop letting others set our future vision

Jon F. Baldwin says the sector can't afford to leave its fate in the hands of the party that happens to win the next general election

January 14, 2010

The future of our universities is under threat. More than ever, the myriad stakeholders who lurk in the shadows are coming into the light and telling us what's good for us and setting out how universities should be shaped, organised, led, managed, evaluated and supported.

Their views conflict, they jockey for position, some voices are louder than others and some of their sentiments are just plain mad. We are, however, reaching something of a crescendo. Noise is all around us, and a sensible and viable way through needs to be navigated.

I pause to reflect, however, on whether the "sector" still exists in a way that permits a common way through the issues. Cards on the table, we no longer work in a higher education sector, and the reality is that it's becoming every man and woman for themselves.

Governments come and governments go. More regularly, ministers come and ministers go. They need votes, they often show limited knowledge of higher education, of how a collegiate institution works, or of what matters. Our representative bodies do their best but will always fail. There is no common agenda, just a lowest common denominator. Parleying with the politicians of the day works for a while but, in truth, such short-term tactics have led us to the instrumental, consumerist world we now appear to inhabit and of which we feel fearful of criticising because of "consequences". We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

So, let's debate and let's debate openly, in a way that reflects our values, our origins, our ideologies. Universities are about freedoms, constructive dissent, truth and consequence, and if we lose the ability to question and the willingness to be maverick, then the whole point, I fear, is lost.

As a starter, let me offer a view. The Government's framework for higher education published recently is, in some respects, plausible and helpful. It is also a recipe for the micromanagement of universities. That must be opposed. The student fees debate is sterile. The whole point of a university education risks being viewed as simply instrumental. Many students believe they're simply buying the right to an upper second - whatever happened to hard work and personal responsibility? The debate should focus instead on the overall funding of our universities, not just a tiny part of the issue.

The quality assurance debate is even worse with "employability" and anecdote now apparently overlaying it. Universities are not some X Factor factory that gets you rich quick. They require a contract involving analysis and rigour, a relationship that is two-way and challenging if success is to result.

One of the greatest threats to the future of our universities comes from the two latest communications from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. We knew they wouldn't be Christmas cards, but we did not expect two "consultations" basically asking us if we would not mind surrendering our academic autonomy to Hefce. We have been presented with a list of new regulations that seek to micromanage a range of activities and processes, including our governance structures, the quality of our degrees, how we actually teach, our carbon footprint, and who we can place in the most accountable positions within our own institutions.

Some may speculate that this latest attack on autonomy is a kneejerk reaction to events at London Metropolitan University, which have required a £36 million funding clawback after years of incorrect student data returns. One may even explore the idea that this is a grab for position and influence by a body unsure of what may happen to it in a future Parliament.

One thing we can be certain of is that these proposed changes will significantly undermine the independence of our universities.

These examples are deliberately forcefully put. Our staff and students are committed to what they are doing. As institutions, we are full of good people bursting to make a difference, bursting to have impact that is meaningful, not invented.

Those good people have clear choices. We can either shout about our true impact or others will not only prescribe but will seek to constantly redefine it with every whim of a government minister. We can wait for an election to see which set of policymakers will settle our futures, or we can debate and assert our own concept for the future. The ultimate choice we have is whether to put forward our own broad vision for our universities - one that wins public support with its passion and power - or to leave our future to the narrow view of whoever holds the policy levers after the general election. The latter choice will lead to micromanagement and the overengineering of a sector that no one in the public will care about until too much of what is great about it has been irretrievably lost.

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