Unified theory: the academy, united, can never be defeated

As cuts bite, it would be easy for the sector to fragment. But, Keith Burnett argues, it must reject such pressures and work collectively to navigate the storm

June 3, 2010

And so the general election is over. For the first time in decades, we will see the hard grind of coalition at work and find out what it means for higher education. It is already clear that decisions about public funding are being dominated by a deficit that could weigh down a generation.

But despite a policy and funding climate that gives cause for concern, I believe we also have reason to be confident. When we are most under pressure, we are forced to think about what we value most, and then work together to protect it. This new mood of necessary partnership has resonances for the academy. There is a powerful need for us to unite in explaining clearly the value of higher education to the country and to individuals.

We need to clarify the importance of higher education to the economy and to a sustainable future for the UK while addressing serious financial constraints across the sector. This must be done in terms that have meaning outside the academic realm.

We must use our ingenuity, creativity and intellectual strengths to build sources of funding to support our commitment to quality for students and scholarship. None of us wants to see an erosion of the UK academy's international position. The temptation is to respond to rankings and sector groupings with more fragmentation and a race to demonstrate the survival of the fittest. Yet the very word "university" derives from a Latin root meaning "community" - a group of academics presenting a body of knowledge and a community of learning inclusive of both scholars and students.

In a cynical world, any discussion of values is easy to deride. A sincere attempt to define our motivations can too easily be dismissed, a prime candidate for Private Eye's Pseuds Corner. And yet, to navigate stormy waters without agreeing on our values is to leave to chance both our direction and destination.

A look back at the history of my university is full of pointers for today's circumstances. The University of Sheffield was founded on values grounded in an admirable mix of aspiration and good sense. The city believed that having a university would deliver social, health and economic benefits, as knowledge was translated into improved healthcare and industries that created jobs and wealth. Much of Sheffield's early funding was raised in factories across what was then a largely industrial city, with hard-pressed individuals making "penny" donations amounting to £50,000, more than £15 million in today's money.

A century later, each of the reasons given for founding the university is a value that we still hold dear. Of course, our impact today is international, as are many of the greatest challenges we face. Our Edwardian forebears would be astonished to see what has been achieved in the century that followed their pioneering spirit - but our desire to better ourselves would be familiar.

Knowing who we are guides us through tough times and can inspire us to rise above points of disagreement. A crucial element of our values is that we are a whole university, providing a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to knowledge. Taking a view of education that is simply responsive to the vagaries of state or private funding would deny us stability and diminish us all.

These values are far from abstract. In such tangible areas as the allocation of funding within Sheffield, they directly affect strategy and financial planning.

Each university has its own sources of pride and tales to tell about how its scholars continue to change the world for the better. Beyond this, we have together developed the minds of generations who have gone on to build wealth and enhance society. The investment made by those who have funded us over the decades has more than paid off.

The academy faces extremely challenging times and we must all work together to sustain it. Our sector works on extremely efficient but increasingly tight margins. Pay modernisation and the provision of excellent benefits to those working in the sector have enabled institutions to attract, retain, motivate and reward high-performing and excellent staff, making UK higher education an outstanding international success. Now we must adapt and work together in the face of substantially diminished resources to do the things we believe are necessary. Greater strength will be found in a unified stance and a common commitment to the vital contribution we can make together.

In the 1970s, I was a pupil at Brynteg Comprehensive School in Bridgend, South Wales. Its motto translates as "To be a leader, be a bridge" - timely advice to vice-chancellors and politicians alike. Over the coming months, the pressure to defend narrow territories will build. But greater strength - both at the level of the institution and the sector - will be found in a united stance.

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