There is a wider purpose for universities than 'serving the economy'

John Holford fears that the Denham 'user group' may be unaware of Tawney's ideal of education's generous, humane and liberal spirit

November 13, 2008

In his speech to the Universities UK Annual Conference in September, Secretary of State for Higher Education John Denham announced the formation of a "user consultation group" on higher education.

Some have voiced concern about this ("Academics and diversity in short supply on task forces", 16 October).

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, was rightly perplexed at the exclusion of academics, while Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, pointed to a "conflict of interest" in one of the group's joint chairmen also sitting on the Confederation of British Industry's higher education task force.

But few have asked: "What does this group tell us about John Denham's vision for higher education?"

Of course, we no longer find it strange that a Labour Secretary of State, when appointing what amounts to an advisory committee, includes no representation of labour whatever. In our brave New Labour world, few question that people's interests are best articulated by their employers.

Even if the purpose of higher education were reducible to furthering the interests of business, excluding representation of working people would make little sense. But as the nation's leaders grapple with the fallout from their infatuation with all things corporate, it is time to imagine again a wider purpose for universities than "serving the economy".

R. H. Tawney, historian, educator and democratic socialist, thought education should be of a "generous, humane and liberal spirit". So it should.

The members of Denham's user group may, for all I know, share Tawney's humane view of education. But he has appointed them as representatives of particular sectors and has asked them to advise him on what "a world-class higher education sector would look like in 10-15 years'" time to support their needs.

We are justified, therefore, in asking: whose needs are they likely to articulate? How broad is their vision of "world-class higher education" likely to be?

The group's co-chairman, Sir John Chisholm, now chairs the Medical Research Council and is executive chairman of QinetiQ, previously part of the publicly owned Defence Evaluation and Research Agency.

No doubt he is an able manager; he is certainly a canny investor. Following its privatisation, Chisholm's £129,000 shareholding rose to £26 million. What balance between public service and private profit will he model for higher education? What vision of universities' role in their communities will he articulate?

"To get rich is glorious," said Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese leader. The recently resurrected Peter Mandelson famously agrees. So, no doubt, does Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. By this criterion, the members of Denham's user group will do universities proud: our "users" are the CEOs of Pearson Publishing and of "a small business in the creative sector".

The director of the National Theatre is there to reflect "art and culture", and the "public-sector viewpoint" will be provided by the chief of the London Development Agency's Olympic Legacy Directorate. Universities' users, it seems, consist only of representatives of glittering business and cultural elites.

No "user" will speak for local communities; none for schools or hospitals; none for the old; none for charities or the voluntary sector; none for social movements; none for ethnic minorities; none for ordinary working people; none even for local authorities.

All this is, I regret, in keeping with recent government approaches to the role of higher education. Universities must not just play a part in "driving up" skills: serving the economy is now their raison d'etre.

Only the bravest university vice-chancellors and university councils with the best endowments try to implement broader, more humane visions. They receive scant support from government.

A recent case in point is the ending of public funding for adult students taking "equivalent or lower-level qualifications" - unless, of course, they enrol on specified (largely vocational) courses.

We may hope that Denham's user group will take a broader and more humane view than their backgrounds suggest is likely. Perhaps, as the wealthy pocket their City bonuses and ordinary people pay the price, he will consider whether the rich and powerful really have all the best tunes.

Perhaps he will remember that a Labour Government should speak for the poor, the excluded, the weak - workers by hand and by brain - as well as Mandelson's messmates. Perhaps a vision of R. H. Tawney and other earlier educationists will come to him in a dream. Let us hope.

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