Sector must address 'fundamental' failure to challenge funding cuts

Canterbury Christ Church vice-chancellor regrets the absence of a united voice. Simon Baker reports

November 25, 2010

The lack of a united response from universities to the government's overhaul of funding has highlighted a "fundamental problem" with representation in the sector.

That is the view of Robin Baker, vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University, who said Universities UK in particular had been too "accommodating" over the radical changes proposed.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Baker, previously vice-chancellor of the University of Chichester, said institutions would now be seeking to put pressure on local MPs to draw the government's attention to the risks of its policy.

His comments chime with the revelation last week that the new UUK president, University of Bristol vice-chancellor Eric Thomas, was unopposed for the post, a fact that some vice-chancellors have put down to anger about the group's handling of recent events.

Professor Baker said that the divergence in views at the Higher Education Funding Council for England's annual conference about proposed cuts to teaching had been "quite striking".

"The sector certainly hasn't responded as one," he said. "I think there is a fundamental problem about representation of views."

He added: "I am surprised that UUK took such an accommodating position on these proposals in a way that many other sectors of the country have been less willing to do."

Professor Baker said that the coalition government had questionable "political and moral authority" for shifting the funding burden on to students, and that the case for the slashing of the higher education budget had not been made.

"Those arguments have not been held, certainly in public, and I haven't seen them held within UUK publications either, so there is a big question about why there is a disproportionate impact on certain aspects of higher education," he said.

Although the Browne Review had been set up to "fix problems" such as student demand outstripping supply of places, Professor Baker said the proposed model would fail to achieve the original aims.

He also warned that any attempts to increase the number of more highly skilled graduates would be thwarted by the reforms as students would be reluctant to pursue postgraduate qualifications with a huge debt burden.

"There are a whole lot of wider ramifications around these proposals that I have not seen explored in any kind of convincing way," Professor Baker said, adding that he hoped the government White Paper, due this winter, would provide a more "coherent and convincing" picture.

He said there was also a lack of coordination from the government over the impact on universities of future policy in other areas, such as health and schools.

This was causing huge uncertainty for institutions such as Canterbury Christ Church, which is a major provider of training for teachers and health professionals, including nurses.

"If there is a lack of policy coherence and fundamental flaws in the financial model, then whatever planning we do could be found wanting," he warned.

Professor Baker said that despite the lack of a unified voice from the sector, the worst impacts of the reforms could still be avoided through "informed, intelligent and constructive" local discussions with MPs.

"MPs are very canny about unpopular policies and the impact that can have on seats," he pointed out.

"We can be absolutely sure that as major employers, universities the length and breadth of England will be talking to MPs about what the potential damage is."

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