Stick your oar in or we'll sink

By providing moral and intellectual leadership, university heads will help to protect the bottom line

March 14, 2013

Universities are one of the UK’s great strengths. Everyone says so. And not only that, it’s true. So why does the sector feel in such a precarious position at the moment?

Last week, we reported on very real concerns about the forthcoming spending review, due on 26 June, which will set departmental spending limits for 2015-16.

This week, Vince Cable added to them with a clear steer that higher education remains in the Treasury’s sights: “When you have 80 per cent of all government spending ring-fenced, it means all future pressure falls on things like the army, local government, universities…you get a very unbalanced approach to public spending,” the business secretary said on Radio 4’s Today on 11 March.

The threat has not crept up on us; the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank warned last autumn that if the NHS, international development and schools budgets were protected, cuts to other departments could rise to an average of 8 per cent in the spending review.

At times like this, one would expect university leaders to be readying the horses and dusting off the armour to fight the government’s axe-men

And this week, in a second report, the same thinktank notes that, in a recent poll, just 18 per cent of respondents thought a university education was a good preparation for today’s labour market: a statistic that strikes at one of higher education’s most Treasury-proof arguments in the battle to resist further cuts to public funding.

At times like this, one would expect university leaders to be readying the horses and dusting off the armour as they prepare to fight the government’s axe-men.

But since this is a battle that can be won only in the court of public opinion, the question has to be asked whether they are arming themselves with the tools for the job.

There’s no doubt that vice-chancellors are willing to fight tooth and nail for their own institutions while lobby and mission groups offer well- organised opposition to anything that hurts the interests of their wider group of members.

Much has been said previously about the wisdom of taking such a factional approach, with many arguing for more coherent advocacy from the sector as a whole. But one also wonders whether universities, by dint of their leaders, are limiting their clout by failing to get involved in a wider range of public debates.

Public respect will never be won from special pleading during funding tussles, but if held for other reasons it would surely be a vital weapon when the Treasury comes calling.

In our cover feature this week, we look at how presidents of US universities are rediscovering their role as public advocates over the issue of gun control, while our second feature makes a passionate case for the role of the “public university”.

Yes, there are political sensitivities in entering wider debates and, yes, presidents (and vice-chancellors) have many demands on their time, but they are also precisely the people - intelligent, informed and, crucially, independent despite being appointed to high public office - who should be providing moral and intellectual guidance on a host of topics.

Some may sneer at such a notion, but if rediscovering the “bully pulpit” allows university leaders to argue for higher education’s value, over and above the latest employment figures, then even by the most utilitarian measure it would be time well spent and something all should be able to get behind.

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