No plaudits for 'audit culture'

Collection of scholarly essays attacks 'distorting' effects of coalition reforms. Simon Baker reports

October 20, 2011

'Precarious' Michael Burawoy says universities face threats to their autonomy

Academics in the UK have to devote themselves to "gaming the system and distorting their output" because of the "elaborate audit culture" that has developed around higher education.

That is one of the opinions put forward in A Manifesto for the Public University, a new collection of essays by campaigning academics in opposition to the coalition's university reforms.

Writing in the book, published next month, Michael Burawoy, a British professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that the sector has been the victim of bureaucratic attempts to simulate market competition.

This regulation is now being deployed to teaching as well as research, he argues. Together with "commodification", universities are facing twin pressures that are "destroying the very basis of (their) own precarious autonomy".

Professor Burawoy's essay is one of seven in the book, edited by John Holmwood, one of the academics behind the Campaign for the Public University, which has launched an alternative to the higher education White Paper.

A Manifesto features an afterword from Sir Steve Smith, the former president of Universities UK, who defends his decision to support the tripling of tuition fees. He also reveals that the most "complicated and fraught" choice he faced at UUK was whether to believe that the government "meant what it said" about cuts to teaching funding.

His conviction that this was no empty threat dictated the policy decisions that followed, Sir Steve argues. He goes on to challenge critics of UUK's acceptance of higher fees over how they would have delivered its objectives to build a more competitive academy in an environment of swingeing cuts to teaching funding.

Desmond King, Andrew W. Mellon professor of American government at the University of Oxford, argues that the vital role researchers play in challenging public policy is under threat. A funding squeeze and changing priorities for the Economic and Social Research Council mean that the ESRC is "perilously close" to falling into an "excessively pro-government stance in supporting research funding", he adds.

Meanwhile, another essay uses an analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey to show that higher education is valued by the wider public for more than just the extra income generated for graduates.

The book is the second "manifesto" to criticise government policy and follows the launch last week of The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, which attacks the marketisation of higher education and the devaluing of teaching.

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