V-cs' hands on the knife

April 5, 1996

Responsibility for the crisis in higher education must fall as much on the vice chancellors as upon the Government - the crisis in funding is only an aspect of a wider malaise. John Bull's lugubrious lament, "Does Someone Out There Care?" (THES, March 8) appears to be an attempt to portray the Government as the sole culprit.

The granting of university status to polytechnics was not only a shrewd marketing device, but also a ploy to "stabilise" expenditure on education. Had the new universities remained polytechnics with their own funding council, the Government would have found it politically unwise to deny them adequate funding while praising their relative "efficiency". There was a clear political agenda behind this backhanded compliment. The vaunted "efficiency" of polytechnics was then used to clobber the established universities and make them fall into line with its scheme of reform - a reform deliberately aimed at "marketising" higher education and "managerialising" its administration. The real reason for unifying the two tiers was to pull the traditional universities down to the level of the polytechnics in order to offer higher education on the cheap.

It is the political and economic philosophy developed by the think-tanks of the New Right, led by the late Lord Joseph, which explains the stringent financial constraints on universities. According to the New Right, economic and social order spring from the unplanned and unintended cooperation between self-interested individuals. The market is therefore the most effective mechanism for distributing virtually all goods and services. Inequality is a fundamental assumption, and it follows that the new universities become the poor relations. If the Conservative Government could have privatised the universities without committing electoral suicide, it would have done. The next best course was to apply the methodology of the market to funding and administration. In this way a viable semi-privatisation was introduced without causing political damage.

Although polytechnics were broadly authoritarian institutions, they did gesture in the direction of democracy through elected academic and faculty boards. The Government set out to destabilise and re-arrange this structure by introducing a multi-tiered managerial structure similar to that of an incorporated company. Representative committees and boards were to be weeded out.

The directors of polytechnics welcomed the Education Reform Act of 1988 with ill-concealed glee. Academic staff were given notice that henceforth students were customers and degrees were products. The directorates circulated memoranda extolling enterprise culture and its inane cliches: "economic delivery", "cost-effective", "niche market" and "mission statement". John Bull's morbid allusion to the present cadaver-like state of higher education cannot exculpate the new vice chancellors. The Government's projects would not have got off the ground if certain themes in its programme had not won the support of mainstream educationalists.

John Bull's response is remarkably naive. Conservative governments cannot be understood unless key elements in their philosophy are taken seriously. The New Right strategy is based not only on the free market, but also on the conviction that government intervention is damaging. This takes the form of an awareness of the dangers associated with the growth of public expenditure in crowding out private investment, and the negative impact of high tax levels on financial incentives to entrepreneurs. John Bull, like many others, has not understood that the measures to semi-privatise the universities under a unified funding council were not motivated by malevolence. They were part of wider measures deliberately taken to limit public spending. With a general election imminent, further reductions are imperative. As a colleague astutely observed, the threat by vice chancellors to impose top-up fees on students, and the Government's rejection of the plan as unfair to the less well-off, has the effect of making the Government appear the champion of poor students and the vice chancellors their oppressors.

Vice chancellors were complicit in denaturing the system, and it is far from clear that they have realised the destructive consequences of treating educational institutions as competitive private businesses. The spirit of co-operation between faculties and departments has withered. Cross-faculty servicing is measured in terms of financial cost and not on its merits as an aid to enhancing quality. The resulting absence of cross-fertilisation is detrimental to students.

Those who unreservedly accommodated the New Right ideology betrayed our trust and their present posture of confrontation and complaint is a sign of desperation. They do not merit our sympathy.

SEBASTIAN SINGARAYER Barrister-at-law, former senior lecturer in law Mannamead, Plymouth

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