Market focus at odds with scholars' priorities for sector

Expert says failure to sell government vision to staff could stymie delivery of policy, writes John Gill

June 19, 2008

A yawning gap exists between government ambitions for higher education and the attitudes of academics, and nothing is being done to address the problem.

That is the view of Roger Brown, professor of higher education at Liverpool Hope University, who says the sector's "marketisation" - typified by a drive towards higher fees and such trends as employer engagement - is at odds with the priorities of most academic staff.

"It's clear that the majority of academic staff are out of sympathy with the general thrust of government policy on higher education. If the future unfolds as one fears it will, with ever-increasing resource pressures, greater consumerism and so on, then where are the academic staff going to be found to deliver it?

"In all the acres of discussion about the White Paper in 2003 and the introduction of variable fees, I don't remember a single sentence saying: 'Has anyone asked what the academic workforce thinks about these policies and how we can deliver them?' After all, they're the ones who have to teach the students and collect the fees," he said.

Professor Brown, who is co-director of Liverpool Hope's Centre for Higher Education Research and Development, said not enough was being done to tackle the issue.

"I don't think anyone's doing any serious work. The Universities and Colleges Employers Association deals with pay, terms and conditions, the Leadership Foundation (for Higher Education) does leadership, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills I don't think is terribly interested - they usually say it's a matter for employers - and the funding councils tend to steer clear of these issues."

His comments came after an Australian study found that higher education was facing a looming staff shortage as the baby-boomer generation of academics approaches retirement age.

According to University of Adelaide research fellow Graeme Hugo, during the 15 years to 2006 there was an 80 per cent increase in the academic workforce aged over 50.

Professor Brown said the problem also existed in the UK, although it was less significant than in Australia and the US. Some disciplines would be harder hit than others, he said.

"It's in the academic heartland where you are going to have issues. Within that you've got the sciences, economics and technology where the future academic labour force is already here in the shape of postgraduate students, but many of them are from overseas.

"That in itself isn't an objection, but of course they may go back to their home countries."

  • At an evidence session held by the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee this month, Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London, criticised the Government's approach to skills as being too "centrally planned" and target-driven to be truly responsive to the needs of the economy.

She said of the Leitch report on skills: "It talks on every second page about world-class skills and demand-led systems, but when you actually look ... what it is proposing is more targets and additional levels of government direction ... Of course you cannot have high productivity without skills, but they have to be the right skills."

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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