Silence is deadly

In the face of coalition cuts and reform, v-cs' appeasement strategy isn't working. Time to speak up, says Aeron Davis

December 2, 2010

Why are vice-chancellors not speaking out about the proposed higher education cuts and reforms to tuition fees? Why the culture of silence, when the academy is under threat as never before?

Increasingly, a sense of distress and anger is welling up among lecturers, students and higher education support staff. Institutional leaders are lagging behind those they lead. Their silence adds to staff and students' sense of frustration.

On the one hand, it makes sense for the Russell Group to keep its counsel: it loses least in the proposals being circulated. Members of the University Alliance may also feel less threatened. But why are the 1994 Group and Million+, as well as other leaders in higher education, so quiet?

One can guess at the logic: there is still much to play for, inside lobbying is still effective, and being too publicly adversarial risks a future backlash from many sources. In other words, there is still more to lose as substantial amounts of state funding remain on the table.

But this strategy has not worked since May and is unlikely to work now. It also amounts to effective acceptance of the government's position on higher education. The insider-advocacy, softly-softly media approach actually aids ministers in their efforts to push home unprecedented changes in extraordinarily short time frames, because if there is no public opposition from higher education's leaders, the public assumes they are in agreement.

Essentially, our vice-chancellors have abandoned the media field, leaving the students as the main voice of opposition. But the public is not put out if lecturers and students strike or occupy college buildings. It is not a news story unless violence and destruction take place, which usually harms the cause.

The silence of university leaders encourages this unfortunate outcome. If desperate staff and students cannot be heard, if they feel unrepresented by those who lead them, they will be tempted to take extreme measures - as they have over the past couple of weeks.

If university leaders do not want this to happen, the only alternative is to speak out.

Universities were always going to be hit hard during the financial crisis. They are an easy target, as they are not seen by the public as an essential service like health, policing or school education.

For months now, ministers have been floating ideas about higher education cuts in the media and waiting for the public backlash. It never came, because those who are viewed as authorities by politicians and journalists - our university leaders - kept quiet, and so the government forged ahead.

Now time is very short, and we stand to lose so much. This includes most of, if not all, our teaching budget - 100 per cent in the arts, humanities and social sciences, not 40 per cent as is so often reported.

The final research assessment exercise was heavily skewed towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics/medicine subjects and the research excellence framework will be even more so. However certain subject areas perform, they will get less research cash.

Funding from the research councils was always biased in its distribution towards the Russell Group universities and those heavy with STEM subjects, and this will probably escalate.

The lifeline many colleges are looking to is foreign students, but the government is also trying to drastically reduce immigration and is preparing to consult on proposals to restrict entry to students at degree level.

All these measures combined, on top of the cuts and marketisation of the sector, might well spell the end for many universities.

It is not just lecturers, students and support staff who feel aghast at all this; there is also palpable unease and anger among teachers, artists, nurses, doctors, musicians, lawyers, council workers, the police, and many more, that treasured institutions and services will be wiped out.

They are all desperate for institutional leaders - those with media access - to lead the opposition. When are they going to step up?

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