Universities should not be viewed as a cure-all for every social policy or economic goal

Professor argues that academics must make sure they stick to core activities rather than being forced to be all things to all men

August 26, 2009

An academic has warned that universities are being overloaded with disparate tasks by policymakers who view education as a “cure-all” for problems in almost every realm.

Ewart Keep, director of the Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance at the University of Cardiff, says in a paper published on 25 August that universities are not only expected to teach at sub-degree, degree and postgraduate level, but also to do world-class research, undertake knowledge transfer, manage academy schools, bolster social equity, stimulate local economic activity “and so on and so on”.

“Leaving aside whether universities are most appropriately placed to deal with many of these tasks, or really have the staff, resources, time or managerial capacity to address this agenda effectively, such an approach is in contradistinction to established best practice in the private sector – from which we are always being told to learn,” he says.

He adds: “The mantra for commercial organisations is stark: stick to your basic core activities and capabilities and outsource all that is not essential.”

Professor Keep makes the comments in a paper in an Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report, First Class? Challenges and Opportunities for the UK’s University Sector.

He says that the education system at all levels is viewed as “a form of policy cure-all” which can be used to support “almost any economic or social policy goal”.

This leaves universities in danger of being held responsible for outcomes over which they have little control, and of failing to satisfy any of the competing demands on them.

He says the requirement to meet the skills needs of employers, for example, is an “elephant trap”, as these are “complex and sometimes conflicting” and there may be strong arguments why they cannot or should not always be met at public expense.

The IPPR report also includes a paper by Clare Callender, professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck, University of London, who says that, despite government attempts to increase participation in higher education, lower-income students and those doing part-time courses still face disadvantages.

She proposes several solutions, including means-testing of tuition loans so that money available is better targeted at those students most in need, with the amount of the loan pegged to family income, or differential loan interest rates depending on means.

Professor Callender also proposes reducing the income threshold at which repayment begins, which was raised to £15,000 by the 2004 Higher Education Act.

Her paper, “The Future of Student Funding in England”, suggests that the Government could place legal restrictions on how tuition-fee income is used to boost support for poorer students.

“Regulations could strengthen the requirement of providing a percentage of tuition-fee revenue that has to be recycled for mandatory, means-tested bursaries, as well as restrictions on how the bursaries could be used,” she says.

But she adds that there will “undoubtedly be resistance” to such a proposal, as universities would be likely to view such regulation as a challenge to their autonomy.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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