A Radical Manifesto for Higher Education

Our universities are under attack, with the Coalition determined to throw them to the mercy of the market. Support is growing for a Manifesto for Higher Education that sets out demands on universities and the government, but will it reignite the student movement?
Des Freedman
3 June 2011

Given David Willetts’ performance over the last year, it is no surprise that academics and students at Oxford University have launched a campaign calling for ‘no confidence’ in the Universities minister, which Anthony Barnett posted about in OK. Having designed a new funding system that is incoherent and unjust and that is likely to be more expensive than the one it is replacing, Willetts is now setting out to undermine even further the very notion that universities should be publicly-funded centres for independent thought and learning. Behind the traditional idea of academic freedom there is a profound understanding that goes back to Galileo of the need for societies to protect autonomous scholarship from the authorities of the time, whether this be the Catholic Church or corporate finance.

The 80 per cent cut in university teaching budgets, the wholescale attack on arts and humanities and, of course, the trebling of fees, signals the determination of the Coalition to open higher education up to the logic of the market. It was disturbing enough back in early May when Willets floated the idea that wealthy students should be able to buy places in oversubscribed universities—a plan he quickly dropped after a public outcry and a humiliating climbdown in front of Parliament—but now we know that he is meeting regularly with American for-profit education providers like Apollo and Education Management Corporation who are lobbying hard to mop up the ‘market’ for students who fail to find a place in the higher education system he has worked so hard to distort. These are precisely the companies currently under investigation in the US for behaving like speculators whose sub-prime mortgages caused economic devastation. We are, if Willetts gets his way, facing a serious assault on our universities.

Many of these proposals—more private providers entering higher education, more customer satisfaction surveys, more micro-management of fees and grants at the same time as allowing courses (and even institutions) to close in an allegedly self-regulating market—are likely to be enshrined in the White Paper due later this month. It will take vigorous campaigns by education unions, students, university staff and anti-cuts campaigners more generally to stop Willetts and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition who are, as the Mirror put it, ‘hell-bent on ruining our universities’. We need to rediscover the energy of the student movement from last winter (whose passion, experience and arguments are set out in Fight Back!) and combine it with mass, imaginative actions in defence of public services.

In doing this, we should not be focused simply on tuition fees or the details of funding formulae. We need to think about what kind of institutions we want our universities to be: competitors for the provision of ‘employer-led’ skills, depositories for the cash of the sons and daughters of international dictators, adjuncts of corporate research, finishing schools for the rich? Or places that deliver independent, critical and relevant knowledge that has been demonstrated again and again to benefit not just individual students but society as a whole?

That is why a group of academics have produced a radical manifesto for our universities with demands placed both on government and universities themselves. It focuses on issues of employment and equality, governance and democracy, investment and internationalism. The manifesto has been signed by over 600 academics and researchers both in the UK and abroad and is designed to make sure that, in challenging the government’s narrow and destructive attack on higher education, we maintain a vision of what it is about universities that is worth fighting for. Here it is:

Demands on Government:

  • Increase proportion of UK public expenditure devoted to higher education to at least the EU19 average of 1.1 per cent (up from 0.7 per cent) – a move that would bring in billions of pounds to the sector.
  • Restoration of maintenance grants and abolition of fees to be paid for through an increase in corporation tax and an increase to the top level of personal income tax.
  • Restoration of the block grant for all subjects.
  • Scrapping of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and its replacement with a way of monitoring research work based on respect for the ability of individuals and groups of researchers to define their own research aims and priorities.
  • Scrapping of the National Student Survey and other forms of evaluation which perpetuate cultures of ‘customer satisfaction’ and quality control, and their replacement with forms of feedback that encourage meaningful reflection on teaching and learning.
  • Scrapping of the Points Based System of Immigration as it affects the higher education sector and a halt to punitive measures affecting the free movement of international staff and students.

Demands on Universities:

  • Commitment by employers to nationally agreed terms and conditions for all staff and recognition of trade unions to negotiate these terms and conditions.
  • Commitment by employers to address the gender pay gap with immediate effect.
  • A commitment to staff/student ratios at the OECD average or better.
  • Commitment by employers to move away from the use of hourly-paid contracts for teachers and to offer permanent contracts after two consecutive years of teaching.
  • Salaries of senior staff and vice-chancellors to be fixed as part of a nationally agreed scale with an income differential, as suggested by Citizens UK, of no more than a multiple of ten.
  • Universities to adopt mission statements, relevant to each institution, that recognise the obligation of institutions to foster independent and critical thought, to ensure access to the university for all social groups, and to seek the participation of the local community in the life of the university.
  • Democratisation of governing bodies through the allocation of equal votes to staff and student representatives, community members, and employers’ representatives.
  • An end wherever possible to the outsourcing of university services including catering, cleaning, international student recruitment, and sickness absence reporting; where outsourcing does take place, a commitment only to consider companies who recognise trade unions and who pay a Living Wage.
  • Commitment by employers to affordable, on-campus childcare provision.
  • Extension of the remit of research ethics committees to consider, with teeth, the ethics of research for the arms trade, the military and the nuclear industry.
  • Pledge by universities not to accept donations from individuals or regimes that refuse to sign a statement on academic freedom that guarantees the right of academics and researchers in the ‘donor’ countries to teach and research without fear of state intervention.

The manifesto is part of a book to be published by Pluto in the summer, The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance. Please sign the manifesto by emailing [email protected] and or by visiting where you can also find out more.

Des Freedman is co-editor with Michael Bailey of The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance

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