Are universities too cosy and cosseted?

Recent political interventions in university affairs are symptomatic of the perception that higher education institutions need a firm hand

November 22, 2018
Person holds Union Jack and European Union flag and umbrella
Source: Getty

There is an unnerving sense of chickens coming home to roost at the moment, with more than a few taking up residence in university rafters.

For those in the UK, this general sense has been amplified in the past week by the Brexit crescendo reached with the publication of the draft withdrawal agreement. The situation is so fluid that it would be foolish to commit too much to print, but the implications of this mess for universities range from bad to disastrous.

Brexit is both a symptom and a cause of the wider shift in political weather, which has brought with it the idea that universities are too cosy and cosseted and deserve a wake-up call.

Examples abound. In England, the chair of the regulator has been barking noisily about letting universities go to the wall. Just last week another example of financial distress emerged, with reports of an institution receiving a £1 million loan from the Office for Students to ease cash flow.

The OfS, in response, said that such support would not be made available again, doubling down on comments made by its chair, Sir Michael Barber, who has warned that “it would be irresponsible to give more public money to people who are demonstrably unable to manage their institution”.

What this overlooks is that the dire straits some universities find themselves in are just as likely to be the result of years of market-oriented policymaking as poor management. But such an inconvenient truth can be stifled when the perception is that we need to get tough with this cosseted class.

In Australia, the shift in attitude has been demonstrated by the political meddling in research grant decisions, a breach of academic freedom that has rightly drawn a furious response. This is not an isolated attack, with funding cuts and regulatory interventions prompting the shadow science minister to last week accuse the government of waging a “culture war” on universities.

Elsewhere in the world, challenges facing universities may be less politically motivated, but that does not make them any less real, and in our cover story our Asia-Pacific editor spends time in Japan, asking whether budgetary constraints and demographic downturns put the future of its huge higher education system in question.

In our news pages, we report on another political intervention in university affairs – but one that is more welcome and warranted than most.

In the Republic of Ireland, universities are being put under serious pressure to take action on gender equality, in line with the country’s Gender Action Plan 2018-2020. They could face fines of up to 10 per cent of their core funding if they do not make the progress required.

For Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Ireland’s higher education minister, progress on gender equality in universities has moved at a “snail’s pace” – and she has a point.

It has been a constant blot on universities’ copybook, an area where they could and should be showing leadership, but where most have abjectly failed to do so.

In this instance, then, intervention may be what is required. But that isn’t to say that working out the precise means of doing so is easy. As former Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey Flier notes in this week’s opinion section, there are now grave risks associated with circumspection on contentious issues, as illustrated by the Twitter storm that greeted his suggestion that a plan by UCLA to require diversity statements in appointment and promotion applications “trivialises” diversity.

However, if universities do not address issues such as these, then they invite greater opprobrium and potentially unnecessary regulation (note the furore over executive pay in the UK, which has had real and wide-ranging implications for universities).

It makes it easy to argue that they are incapable of managing their own affairs. And whether it’s wielded by the left or right, any stick that comes to hand will be used to beat universities in the current climate.

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