V-cs' candid views slip out online

Prematurely released paper reveals fears of staff revolution and desire to cash in, writes Zoë Corbyn

July 2, 2009

The frank and at times contentious views of vice-chancellors on topics such as academic freedom and the utilitarian value of degrees have been prematurely released online.

The comments were made by ten UK vice-chancellors interviewed by Canadian researchers working on a paper for a leading higher education journal.

The 90-minute conversations, which took place in 2004-05, were transcribed and copies were sent to those interviewed for approval before the quotes were used.

However, the peer-reviewed paper, "Perspectives of UK Vice-Chancellors on Leading Universities in a Knowledge-Based Economy", was published online on 16 June by the Higher Education Quarterly before permission to use their names had been gained from all the interviewees.

It has subsequently been removed, but not before a copy, with all comments fully attributed, was provided to Times Higher Education by the publisher, Wiley InterScience.

In a section on academic freedom, one vice-chancellor speaks of the need to have a "network of people involved in intelligence-gathering to be able to deal swiftly with even the faintest hint of revolution".

The same vice-chancellor also offers a controversial interpretation of the value of a degree.

"We all know that education is a commodity that can be bought and sold, often at a very high price," he says. "So universities are busy doing that - charging students a large amount of money to study in England because it is a popular destination. Branding and marketing take the front seat, and education is in the back."

Another vice-chancellor said he was concerned that universities would be sidelined by their "conservative refusal to compromise".

"Corporations will create private universities when they perceive that university training is inadequate, too costly, unfocused and doesn't pay off in increasing employee loyalty," he says.

The paper's author, Lynn Bosetti, professor in educational leadership specialisation at the University of Calgary, said she could not release the research because she was still waiting for a participant's consent for quotes to be used.

Made aware that the paper was available online, Celia Whitchurch, a lecturer in higher education at the Institute of Education and one of the journal's editors, said it had been published too early and was being taken down. "This paper should not have been released with names incorporated in it, as it was not clear that permission had been received from respondents in the project for their names to be used in any published paper," she said.

Times Higher Education understands that the paper will be available online again shortly, once permissions are in place.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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