'No Confidence' in the Coalitions' policy for higher education

A campaign is launched to express 'no confidence' in the British government's policy on higher education. Does it go far enough?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
1 June 2011

A campaign is launching to express 'no confidence' in the British government's policy on higher education. Does it go far enough? Its six points follow. They are a start. But the organisers should add something stronger about the need for an autonomous space of high education that is not governed by market values and provides a means of opposing official opinion of all kinds while recruiting widely from across the communities of the UK.

  1. The Government’s policy is financially chaotic and unsustainable. The Treasury budgeted for an average fee of £7500, but now more than two-thirds of Universities want to charge £9000 for some or all courses.
  2. The 80% cut to the HEFCE Teaching grant will leave Universities systematically underfunded even with higher fees.
  3. The academic profession in the UK has never been less attractive. The debts incurred to go through both undergraduate and postgraduate study could be as high as £87,000. Money for research is also being cut in real terms and what remains is being focused on the Government’s short-term agenda.
  4. The consumer-producer relationship which the Government policies are designed to set up will undermine the spirit of academic community which is at the heart of the ethos of Higher Education.
  5. The embarrassing U-turns of recent weeks are signs of a policy in total disarray. The HE sector is too important to be thrown into chaos by half-baked ideas and rapid rethinks.
  6. The licensing of for-profit institutions to award degrees and the advocacy of overseas franchising by existing Universities are a threat to the reputation of the UK University system as a whole.

I have never taught in a university, though to declare an interest I live with an emeritus professor. So I am surprised to find that I have been writing about this issue recently. In the brilliant collection Fight Back, edited by Dan Hancox, I wrote a foreword that looked at the Browne Report on higher education and why it triggered a militant anti-cuts moment. Then I felt the need to defend Fred Halliday and criticise the LSE, when it was suggested that Fred's opposition to the LSE taking Gaddafi's money was somehow wrong at the time even though he has been proved right now. What I found striking was the way he fought for the independence of the university. Yesterday, to go from the brave and far-sighted to the ridiculous, I found myself engaged in the row over Dennis McShane's disgraceful indifference to academic freedom.

The argument over student fees goes much further than issues of competence. We need a space protected from the instructions of market values where scholars can assess and try to understand what is going on in our society. This means it has to be free from political direction also. Previously this was secured, sort of, by elite institutions and their clerical and clubland values and mores. Now we need to re-found the autonomy of higher education on democratic principles and republican values.

PS: See also Des Freedman's post on a more extensive Manifesto

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