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December 20, 2012

When the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CBDU) launched in November, on a quest to advance university education for the public benefit, it did so without a single vice-chancellor among its membership.

That has now changed. Vice-chancellor Martin Hall used his official University of Salford blog to explain why he signed up to the organisation, which aims to defend academic values and the reputation of the UK's universities.

"I nearly didn't," he says. "The steering committee got off on the wrong foot by complaining that no vice-chancellors responded to their call to support them. But they clearly wrote only to selected vice-chancellors; a nice irony, since this is part of the problem that they seek to address."

Despite the shaky start, Professor Hall was sufficiently impressed by the organisation's objectives to put pen to paper. "It was immediately apparent that the reforms introduced after the May 2010 election shifted away from a balance between the public and private benefits of universities, and to an overwhelming emphasis on individual return on investment and market driven competition," he writes.

"A significant minority of vice-chancellors saw this and argued against the changes and their consequences...The counter-argument was that elite universities, that had been tapped by government as legitimate claimants for the most expensive price tags (and could hope to be allowed to charge more in the future), would benefit disproportionately from the new settlement. These universities supported the Coalition's settlement, and won the case in the animated debate within Universities UK."

Unfortunately, Professor Hall continues, there were unintended consequences for the elite as well, with universities ranked high in the league tables reporting student intake shortfalls. "They, too, are now critics of government policy," Professor Hall says.

"Throttling back on higher education, combined with socio-economic consequences of marked and increasing inequality, an insane attitude to the value of skilled migrants and a hostility to the rest of Europe is pretty close to a national death wish, captured by the metaphor of rusting nuclear submarines."

The CBDU argues that intellectual activity should be freely conducted without regard to its immediate economic impact, something that Professor Hall agrees with. But, he adds, "the seismic shifts we are now seeing across the sector are equally damaging to the argument that intellectual activity should be all about economic benefit".

"The students whom we should be enrolling now will be the new wave of the graduate workforce in about 2017 and the following years - the workforce for the new economy that will emerge from the present, sustained, recession."

Professor Hall wants to see an appropriate balance between the private benefits and public good of universities, and concludes that the core weakness in the coalition government's approach to higher education is the surrender of the case for public good in favour of private benefits and pseudo-market competition. "This is the hub of the case made by the Council for the Defence of British Universities, and why this is a movement worth supporting," he says.

• Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com.

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