Searing honesty

Jon Baldwin has left for Australia, but he has a few home truths to impart from abroad about the mess the UK academy is in

February 9, 2012

My career in higher education administration and management began in 1984 when I was appointed to the Faculty of Humanities at the Poulton-le-Fylde campus of what was then Preston Polytechnic - a fine institution then and now. There, I fell under the spell of an outstanding man, Tim Curtis, who inspired me and many others, and sadly died far too young. For me, he turned a job into a career: he made me believe in myself and in what was possible. Before it was fashionable, he was a mentor and a role model - someone to respect and admire.

Those were heady days in higher education. The polytechnics were in the vanguard of an expansionary agenda. Their time had come and the better ones were seizing the moment. Something was happening and it was a pleasure and privilege to be part of it. I knew I was in a sector that mattered, that was making a difference to people's lives. I had a small part to play, but I knew where I fitted in and why.

Fast-forward to 2012 and after some years, I have just left the UK to take up a position at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Besides Preston (now the University of Central Lancashire), I've worked at the University of Warwick, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and the University of Wolverhampton. I've had a great time, contributing to some major projects and developments, and meeting and working with some outstanding people. I retain a fierce pride in UK higher education and its achievements despite often difficult circumstances. It is time, however, to take a break from the UK and to move on.

These are challenging times for UK higher education. To put it frankly, we're in a policy mess - and I suspect that coalition politics will be unable to sort matters out in short order. As mission groups vie for position, each one risks undermining the other. Universities UK sponsors good relations, perhaps, but little else. The Higher Education Funding Council for England, subservient in recent times, now risks meltdown as it takes on the roles of funder, regulator and consumer champion. Well led it is, but challenges lurk. The Quality Assurance Agency satisfies some but not others; the Higher Education Academy feels peripheral and constantly under fire.

Meanwhile, we have (allegedly) a consumer culture in the sector - but one that requires regulation via Key Information Sets, obligatory survey participation and extraordinary intervention. League tables abound, some better than others (but not by much). Research assessment has become a be-all-and-end-all tyranny and its value has, as such, become somewhat obscured.

Overlay all that with tuition fees, declining public investment, visa restrictions, the very need for an Office for Fair Access and the fact that most European economies are going to hell in a handcart and, suddenly, the ferment that higher education in the UK now finds itself in becomes all too apparent.

Australia, on the other hand, feels optimistic. The economy is strong - in Western Australia in particular, it's in overdrive. Proximity to East Asia creates an advantage. In November, writing in The Spectator, the journalist Peter Hartcher said that Australia has become one of the most successful countries on Earth. "Indeed, by some of the most important measures, it is the most successful of all," he claimed.

In comparison with the UK, things feel more planned in Australia. While competition is very visible, success appears to be taken at face value in all shades of institution; it is celebrated, not denigrated. The sector's mix of federal and state support maintains a clear public interest, while entrepreneurialism retains a force that feels appropriate - as if it reflects the values of universities themselves, not simply the market. Now, time will tell and any observations I make about my new home are inevitably superficial and partial at this stage. No doubt, in due course, I will feel different frustrations and impediments - but not yet.

So, why does the UK find itself in this position? That is a complex question, as inevitably there are many contributing factors. As a senior member of a UK university until recently, I must take some responsibility, as must other academy leaders. Too often there is a rush to conform, to imitate, to please the minister. Haphazard initiatives are grasped in what feels like an ad hoc way. Too much is embraced with, it seems, little strategic purpose. We create the conditions that we ultimately complain about, conditions that erode the autonomy of which we proudly boast. We risk destroying the very fabric that has, over many years, made the UK the place to be if you are involved in higher education.

Over the next few years, a new, clearer order will be created. Whether it is a sensible one that reflects new national and regional economic needs and conditions remains to be seen. I shall watch with interest.

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