'V-cs no longer speak for universities to Government'

Political honours have co-opted the sector's leaders, a constitutional expert tells Rebecca Attwood

March 19, 2009

Vernon Bogdanor is fascinated by constitutions, the way that we are governed and the relationship of the individual to the state.

So it is no surprise that the University of Oxford professor of government should have firm views on university governance.

Today's vice-chancellors do not do enough to stand up for universities, he told Times Higher Education in an interview at Brasenose College, Oxford.

"Leaders of higher education have been co-opted too strongly into Government. Instead of speaking for universities to the Government, they speak for Government to universities. There are too many people of a managerial bent running universities and too few who understand very much about academic values."

This was not always the case. In the 1950s and 1960s, in the days of Lord Franks, provost of Worcester College, Oxford, and Lord Wolfenden, the vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, heads of academic institutions were powerful national figures, he argued.

Governments were fearful of provoking their ire and would not decide policies on higher education without their input.

According to Professor Bogdanor, the rewards system is partly to blame for reducing their outspokenness. Now vice-chancellors "want knighthoods and peerages". They have ceased to represent academics and students, and have allowed "all sorts of intrusions" on academic values.

Professor Bogdanor, who writes regularly for national newspapers, was a vocal opponent of the failed attempts by John Hood, Oxford's vice-chancellor, to bring a majority of external members on to its governing council.

Although Oxford is old, the ideas behind its organisation - decentralisation and a federal system - are extremely modern, he said.

But the rise of the "managerial philosophy" that began under Baroness Thatcher brought about the "mad idea" that the disciplines of the financial world should be brought into universities.

And so academics now labour under the pressures of managerialism, administration, bureaucracy and attempts to measure their output.

"These things don't work in a university. We are not making widgets or screwdrivers."

In the arts and humanities, the pressure is far too great on young academics to publish before they are necessarily ready to do so.

"I don't think any social value is gained by much of what is published," Professor Bogdanor said.

He is inclined to agree with one former colleague, a philosopher, who said people ought to be most grateful to him for his unpublished works.

Professor Bogdanor's own publications, however, have been described by the Political Studies Association as "seminal", and the association awarded him the Sir Isaiah Berlin prize for lifetime achievement last November.

"I knew Isaiah Berlin," Professor Bogdanor said. "He was a great political thinker, a political philosopher. He would have thought the work I did on the constitution was machinery, furniture. I take a slightly different view. I think ideas come out of concrete things."

Professor Bogdanor has advised the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Romania, Slovakia and Trinidad on constitutional matters.

In his forthcoming book, The New British Constitution, he argues that the UK is moving towards a constitution. But it has happened in a "typically British, unplanned, pragmatic" way, he said. "No one actually set out to do it."

Most of the constitutional reforms - such as devolution - have shifted power between the elites. "What I would like to see is power knocked not just sideways but downwards, so that people can take more power in their own hands."

The credit crunch has put constitutional reform on hold while the Prime Minister deals with more pressing concerns, according to Professor Bogdanor, who counts David Cameron, the Conservative leader, among his former students.

But he thinks there may be a silver lining in the downturn - it rather undermines the idea that academia has a lot to learn from business.

"If we look at the history of Britain, on the whole universities are successful and have been a model for the world. I wouldn't have thought that British business was a model for much! So all this may be coming to an end. We may be on a cusp of a period of ideological change. It is, perhaps, too early to tell."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

CHURCHILL'S PASSION FOR LEARNING

This week Vernon Bogdanor delivers the Winston Churchill Memorial Lecture in Luxembourg, an honour normally reserved for politicians - Baroness Thatcher, Lord Mandelson and Lord Jenkins among them.

Churchill did not go to university, but in his later life he gave several speeches on higher education when receiving honorary degrees.

"As life unfolds, I have been astonished to find how many more degrees I have received than I have passed examinations," he said in 1950.

"This is a good argument for not being discouraged by the failures or shortcomings of youth but to persevere and go on trying to learn all your life."

While in the Army in Bangalore in his twenties, Churchill developed a thirst for knowledge and asked his mother to send him books. He devoured works on history and philosophy.

Churchill also said that the purpose of universities was misunderstood - they were not for training, but to enable people to think and open their minds.

Professor Bogdanor said: "He would have been in favour, I think, of the Government's policy of extending university education to 50 per cent of the population. But he would not, I think, have been in favour of vocational courses."

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