Opinion: Shoulder to shoulder, let’s seize the day

June 9, 2009

The DIUS’ demise offers the higher education sector the chance to change the narrative and restate its principles to a Government that has lost the plot, argues Paul Benneworth

So, it is time to bid farewell to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, a ministry unlikely to be greatly missed. It is hard to tell whether the true cause of its demise will ever be known, but contrary to the protestations of the Association of Colleges and the University and College Union, I welcome this announcement. It provides an opportunity to draw a line under a very unstable period in higher education policy.

That is not to say the department did not promise much for the sector. Having a single ministry should have allowed higher education to make a strong case for renewal to maximise its benefits in the 21st century.

Sadly, as we all now know, this potential dissipated as DIUS stumbled from the outset. It did create an early sense of momentum with a series of eye-catching ministerial announcements that dominated the education headlines. However, in the cold light of day, many of these initiatives – such as the equivalent or lower-level qualification fiasco or the recent shortfall in student places – betrayed a somewhat myopic view of higher education. Critically, rather than working with parliamentary allies to correct these problems, many universities seemed preoccupied with maximising their share of the research assessment exercise pie.

What lessons might be learnt from the past two inglorious years so that we avoid such problems in the future?

First, universities have been more interested in competing with each other than in collectively making the case that a diverse sector is a strong sector. Institutions seem to have forgotten that much of the evidence surrounding market efficiency, inter-institutional competition and research concentration is by no means conclusive. Universities may have accepted these assumptions to get their voices heard by the Gradgrind wing of the Treasury, but they also seem to have forgotten that fact and have internalised them as the inevitable conditions of modern higher education.

Second, the strengths of a diverse higher education system have been forgotten, belying the fact that it is not just universities that are diverse – people’s needs are, too. A diverse university system is increasingly necessary to provide a range of options for learning and research that meet the needs and capacities of an increasingly non-traditional population. Relationships between universities are often reduced to competition, rather than reflecting the ways in which people in our national talent pool really develop. Institutions have failed to make a collective case for diversity, instead concentrating their fire on maximising private institutional reward.

Finally, universities have accepted a series of poor policies sweetened by the very generous post-2001 financial settlements. But when the Government’s money taps are turned off after 2010, hard choices will have to be made, and it is likely that it will be one particular type of institution that misses out. Potentially this could lead to mutiny by that university profile group.

In the absence of money to buy off rebellion, the Government could see Britain’s unitary higher education system irreversibly fragment, losing its control and authority over the sector. If elite universities go private and become for ever cut off from all but the wealthiest students, that would be a terrifying prospect indeed.

So what should the sector do to capitalise on the new opportunity afforded by the creation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills?

The key message to convey to the incoming ministerial team is the complexity of the sector: universities are a flock of “golden geese” that together deliver a huge range of economic benefits and civilising effects for the whole country.

Sacrificing their golden eggs in the name of a simplistic vision for higher education would betray our sector’s true potential to contribute to the Government’s efforts to drive productivity and raise living standards.

But so far it has been hard to discern much sense above all the hissing and cackling. The sector needs to get its message heard by emphasising the wider societal benefits of a diverse system.

Clearly, the incoming chief executive of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, needs to broker peace among warring university factions, a peace based on a collective appreciation of the value of a mutually supportive sector.

Showing our capacity to work “together but differently” to help solve pressing policy concerns can only strengthen our collective hand, thereby helping the Government to reclaim control over an agenda that recent events suggest it has lost.

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