Passive sector must fight its corner, says MP

January 20, 2011

Universities "punch below their weight" in the political arena, according to the former head of the education select committee.

At a Higher Education Policy Institute seminar at the House of Commons last week, Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, expressed his frustration with the sector's response to the swingeing cuts imposed upon it.

Mr Sheerman, who has been a member of Parliament for more than 30 years, said he was "really just so worried about the lack of punch in the higher education community".

He told the meeting of vice-chancellors, academics and sector leaders: "You really do punch below your weight. This is a political don't lie down and let things roll over you - you articulate, you engage, you put the alternatives."

The MP said he believed that the academy could still grow in the future. However, if university activity were to decline thanks to the coalition government's cuts, it would have a "devastating" impact on major cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Huddersfield and Bradford.

Universities were the biggest employer in most British cities, but arguments for the importance of the institutions were not being "articulated with a voice that is clear and powerful enough", said Mr Sheerman, who was a lecturer prior to his career in politics.

John Coyne, vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, pointed out that the event, titled Higher Education in the Age of Austerity, was being held on the day that one division of one bank would approve bonuses that would see a few thousand people share a sum equivalent to twice the amount the sector would lose in cuts over four years.

Writing in Times Higher Education this week, Professor Coyne asks: "What is the implied value judgement that sits behind this decision? What is it telling us about the inherent value seen in the one activity and not in the other in its contribution to the society and economy we are trying to build?"

He asks whether the sector has itself to blame for "assuming that all the good things (it) contributes are as well understood as they should be".

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