Pre-election policy debate may be on mute

Panel speakers fear v-cs’ silence presages a lack of pre-election policy debate

June 12, 2014

A “silence of the v-cs” in public debate means that there risks being no serious discussion of higher education policy in the run-up to the general election, a panel debate on the 2015 party manifestos has heard.

Speakers of all political persuasions expressed scepticism that political parties and university heads actually wished to have a wide-open debate about higher education.

It is anticipated that Labour will pledge to cut maximum tuition fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000, but so far few other potential election policies have been trailed.

Speaking at “What should the political parties promise on education in 2015?”, an event on 7 June hosted by the thinktank Policy Exchange with Times Higher Education as media partner, Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, said that “silent” vice-chancellors “seem to feel they always have to be diplomatic and realistic”.

“That means that they wish to ensure they say nothing that might jeopardise their individual standing with government ministers”, leaving them unable to take “risks” in public debate about higher education, said Professor Docherty, who is currently suspended from his Warwick post for unexplained reasons.

Mark Leach, editor-in-chief of the WonkHE blog, said that among universities there was a “real hope” that tuition fees do not become an election issue.

Noting that there were some vice-chancellors who had “very strong” dissenting views about increased tuition fees, he added that he was “uncomfortable with the conspiracy of silence” on higher education policy, which during the past five years had been made in the “shadows”.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, put what he called a “pusillanimous” attitude by vice-chancellors towards the government down to the fact that they did not want to upset their “monopoly customer”.

Unless they won more financial autonomy, they would continue to be “afraid to step out of line”.

Rachel Wenstone, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, added that to judge from the union’s engagement with the parties so far, “higher education will be as far down on their list of things to talk about as possible”.

But there was one dissenting voice on the five-member panel: Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former special adviser to David Willetts, the minister for universities and science. He said it was “absurd” to claim that there had been no proper debate on higher education policy during this Parliament.

“We had rioting students…we have mission groups coming out of our ears, we have Universities UK…there is a debate about higher education and it’s been taking place. You may not like the answer, but the debate has been happening,” he said.

In an interview with THE in March, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the vice-chancellors’ organisation Universities UK, said it would not be “helpful” if student fees and funding became an election issue, citing the need for “stability”.

Vice-chancellors have been active in some public debates. The University of East Anglia’s Edward Acton and others have spoken out against government visa policies that have been seen as damaging to the UK’s recruitment of international students. And last month, vice-chancellors representing the entire sector used an open letter to stress the benefits of European Union membership to their universities’ success.

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