Universities offer bastions of hope

After a year where universities were buffeted by forces beyond their control, the winter brings time for reflection and appreciation of their vital role

December 20, 2018
Anti-Brexit Santa
Source: Reuters

A lot has been thrown at higher education over the past 12 months. In fact, it has felt at times as though universities have been up in stocks with a baying mob launching mouldering tomatoes at them – although for what crimes it has not always been easy to say.

In the UK, 2018 began with strikes reflecting deep divisions over the future of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The action forced a retreat on plans that could have slashed retirement incomes, and to a review that seems to have found a way to largely preserve current arrangements.

It was a year in which higher education lost not one but two ministers: first in a reshuffle, and then with a resignation. Both ultimately swapped ministerial posts for the back benches to speak out on the dangers of Brexit – and, in Jo Johnson’s case at least, to campaign for a second referendum.

As for the UK’s third universities minister of 2018, Chris Skidmore awaits the recommendations of the Augar review into university funding, which many fear will pave the way for a cut in the tuition fee cap that could also spell a reduction in the unit of resource.

This was not the UK’s only major review of the year. Others with particular significance for higher education included this week’s decision by the Office for National Statistics on how to account for tuition fee debt in the national accounts, and this summer’s Migration Advisory Committee report, which failed to deliver the hoped-for softening on students’ place in net migration statistics.

Brexit, of course, was the defining story for the country once again, with an alarming lack of clarity continuing to cloud everything from the future of research funding to student and academic flows.

What else has made headlines?

In Australia, there has been growing disquiet about the saturation of international students and about the standards that are being applied by institutions keen to pile them in.

There was also a shock wave that reverberated around the world when it emerged that research grants approved by funding agencies had been vetoed by a minister in a clear breach of academic freedom and autonomy, followed by the introduction of a “national interest” test on research funding decisions.

In the rankings, China continued its march up the tables, with astonishing levels of funding producing steady improvement at all levels, and helping Tsinghua University to leapfrog the National University of Singapore as Asia’s top-ranked institution.

It was also the year when it emerged that China’s scholarly output – as measured by the proportion of authors on published research papers – had overtaken that of the US, and of continued concerns about international students taking research “secrets” back to China from the West.

In the US, Donald Trump dominated proceedings for a second year, with campus themes including freedom of speech and affordability, while in Europe the crisis for scholarship in Turkey continued and the travails of the Central European University came to a head when it was forced out of Hungary.

Many of the big issues outside higher education touched universities, too.

The #MeToo movement led to numerous tales of harassment, sexism and abuse, many of which were told in the pages of Times Higher Education, while concern about the role of universities in the development of artificial intelligence and data ethics also rumbled on – the Cambridge Analytica scandal providing a particular flashpoint.

So there has been plenty to write about.

This week, in a double bill of features, we take the foot off the gas and make space for some end-of-year reflections.

Among them is a winter story from John Gilbey that imagines a post-apocalyptic frozen wasteland. What, he asks, would you need if you had to rebuild society from scratch? The answer, of course, is a university. Let’s hope 2019 doesn’t get as bad as that. But it’s nice to know you’re there if it does!

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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