The alternative white paper: in defence of public higher education

Hundreds of academics have signed a new paper arguing against the UK government's higher education reforms. Universities are not about private benefit alone, the paper argues - democratic public values should be at their heart.
Andrew McGettigan
30 September 2011

David Willetts, Minster for Universities, holds to the credo that a market in higher education in England will improve student experience and put undergraduates at the heart of the system.  All features of privatisation flow from this faith:

  • student as consumer,
  • increased competition in recruitment,
  • private fee income and individual debt replacing state funding,
  • and a new regulatory framework that creates a ‘level playing field for private and for-profit providers.

Allowing such new, ‘alternative’ entrants into the sector forces universities to ‘raise their game’.  According to Willetts, ‘It is the rising tide that lifts all the boats.’

‘In Defence of Public Higher Education’ sets out the case against Willett’s vision as articulated in the government’s recent comprehensive spending review and white paper.

It rejects the idea that higher education is only to be understood as a private benefit whether as training for employability or human capital investment (where the future return should be higher earnings).  It champions universities in terms of public, democratic values and argues for their place at the heart of a wider social mission.  It warns of degree shops, higher debt for individuals and institutions, and ‘a differently funded sector’ whose internationally recognised achievements are put at risk so as to provide ‘new outlets for capital that struggles to find suitable opportunities for investment elsewhere’.  

‘In Defence of Public Higher Education’ follows on from the earlier response, Putting Vision Back into Higher Education, and sets out nine propositions which are then developed over the course of the document.  A separate appendix disputes the savings claimed by the government through its reforms.

The propositions are:

  1. Higher education serves public benefits as well as private ones. These require financial support if these benefits are to continue to be provided.
  2. Public universities are necessary to build and maintain confidence in public debate.
  3. Public universities have a social mission, contributing to the amelioration of social inequality, which is the corollary of the promotion of social mobility.
  4. Public higher education is part of a generational contract in which an older generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations that will support them in turn.
  5. Public institutions providing similar programmes of study should be funded at a similar level.
  6. Education cannot be treated as a simple consumer good; consumer sovereignty is an inappropriate means of placing students at the heart of the system.
  7. Training in skills is not the same as a university education. While the first is valuable in its own terms, a university education provides more than technical training. This should be clearly recognised in the title of a university.
  8. The university is a community made up of diverse disciplines as well as different activities of teaching, research and external collaboration. These activities are maintained by academics, managers, administrators and a range of support staff, all of whom contribute to what is distinctive about the university as a community.
  9. Universities are not only global institutions. They also serve their local and regional communities and their different traditions and contexts are important.

Hundreds of academics have already signed the document.  An updated list of individual signatories is here.

To add your name to the list of signatories, email altwhitepaper[AT]

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