Heavy hands on the tiller

Higher education systems that are free to evolve have improved and adapted as times change, but more are seeing ministers determined to set the course

February 17, 2022
 Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan
Source: Getty

“It is an uncomfortable truth that in comparative terms, and much as it may make us feel better to argue the opposite, in the UK we are a lucky system of higher education. Despite the pressures of a hyper-active political context, we have maintained a buffer between ourselves and the government.”

So begins an oft-quoted paper by the late Sir David Watson, pre-eminent professor of higher education, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2014.

He goes on to cite increases in funding over successive decades, high student satisfaction rates and the maintenance of a gold standard for degree-awarding powers as other reasons to be cheerful.

However, Sir David saw trouble brewing, and he set out the “category mistakes” that he saw as contributing to a misunderstanding of higher education, with the potential to seriously undermine it.

Revisiting the paper today, it is an obvious reflection that – for all the dramatic events of recent years – the “hyper-active political context” has remained constant over the intervening period.

Not that hyperactivity has always converted into hard policy – indeed, as was pointed out in a Hepi blog recently, we are now into the fourth year of the wait for the response to the Augar review of funding in England, a delay that may yet be long enough to see off its second prime minister.

But in our news coverage, there are constant reminders of how that “buffer” between universities and ministers is being eroded, both in England – where, quite explicitly, the old arm’s-length model of the funding council has been replaced with a hands-on regulator – and elsewhere.

In a current example, we have the intervention of the UK’s business secretary in vetoing the appointment of a prominent academic to head the Economic and Social Research Council, as well as long delays in parallel appointments at a number of other funding bodies. The latest skirmishes highlight an ongoing concern, voiced by Sir John Kingman last year when he cautioned against the folly of “collective political policing” of such appointments – a warning that seems to have gone unheeded.

Head to the other side of the world, and similar interventionism is now commonplace in Australia: as we report this week, the decision to veto grants for a number of humanities projects on value-for-money grounds has prompted a Senate-backed inquiry into political meddling.

Meanwhile, research collaboration between Australia and China has taken a nosedive, a trend tied at least in part to the message sent by the vetoing of China-related research grants last year.

These cases reflect two slightly different dynamics at play: the overtly political – that is, the “policing” of appointments of people who may not be political allies (the blocked ESRC candidate was apparently judged to be “too left-wing” for the role) – and the increasingly instrumentalist view of what research in particular is for.

In England, we had until last year an education secretary in Gavin Williamson who often seemed interested only in the higher education issues that played to the culture wars gallery.

His successor, Nadhim Zahawi, and the universities minister Michelle Donelan, seem rather more interested in how universities can contribute to core economic policy agendas.

This is an improvement, but might it also pose greater risk to universities as masters of their own destinies: fewer punishment beatings, more re-engineering of the structures within which they operate?

The rather odd disconnect in all of this is that most of the agendas on government’s mind – lifelong learning, levelling-up, skills gaps, productivity – are natural priorities for universities, too, but for whatever reason an understanding or acceptance that universities offer solutions, and that autonomy is the best route to delivering them, seems to have been lost.

At the end of Sir David’s paper, he concludes that the survival and prosperity of universities are best served when they take responsibility for their own affairs, and he expressed optimism that this could be achieved even in challenging circumstances – optimism that is based on past success.

“The system we have today is hugely better than the one which was declared to be broken in the context of the last national economic crisis of the 1970s, on all sorts of measures, including productivity and social justice,” he concludes. “We mended and improved it then, largely in spite of rather than with the assistance of the governments of the day. Let us hope we can do it again.”


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