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Universities are under attack – time to drag the fight to a higher level | Stephen Curry

Students march to demand an end to tuition fees
Students march to demand an end to tuition fees Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Yesterday there appeared the latest in a long series of articles that, through the medium of superficial analysis, mounts a damaging attack on Britain’s universities. The piece, published by the BBC, rehearses the debates over tuition fees, student satisfaction, sky-high vice-chancellor salaries, and the universities minister’s recent criticism of free speech at our institutions of higher education. To be fair to the BBC’s education correspondent, he doesn’t appear to have an agenda but his diagnoses betrayed the same lack of familiarly of structural and operational realities that have so weakened the criticisms made by Andrew Adonis and Simon Jenkins.

We might have hoped for more substantial critique from the minister, but Jo Johnson’s most recent pronouncements, on two-year degrees and on the troublesome debates embroiling students around freedom of speech have been disappointingly thin on evidence and detail. They were so easily debunked that I am beginning to suspect that Johnson is more interested in catching the eye of the right-wing press – and the prime minister – than in constructing useful policy for higher education. The appointment to the board of the Office for Students of Toby Young, a journalist with dubious and poorly supported views on diversity and eugenics, appears to follow a similar pattern.

As we know from the rancorous process of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, the views of politicians don’t need to fully embrace the complexity of difficult issues to inflict real and lasting damage. It is sufficient to build a superstructure of assumption and bombast around a kernel of truth. And there are enough kernels of truth in the questions raised over the past several months to make these dangerous times for the future of our universities. The only recourse is to come out fighting.

Fortunately, there is plenty to fight for and plenty of ammunition, as is made clear in A University Education, a new book by David Willetts, one of Jo Johnson’s predecessors as minister for universities. Willetts may seem an unlikely ally to some, since he was the architect of the policy of trebling tuition fees that has troubled student groups so much and university vice-chancellors so little, at least according to the simplistic narratives spread in much of the press. But Willetts’s consistently thoughtful approach to higher education has earned him the respect even of his political opponents. Academics and students out of sympathy with his reforms will need to read his book and engage with his arguments if they are to build a case to challenge them.

A University Education begins by sketching out the historical and geopolitical development of universities and provides a useful corrective to the more romantic notions about their purity and independence. From the foundation of the first one in Bologna in 1088, these institutions have always been subject to powerful internal and external influences. Though university self-governance remains a vitally important characteristic, it has always been tensioned against national interests. Thus Oxford emerged after Henry II banned English students from travelling to Paris; the research PhD, invented in Germany, was imported first to the US and then to England in reaction to the fear of competition; and the universities in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol and Sheffield were founded– once the government had overcome the 600-year-long opposition of Oxford and Cambridge – with the support of local industrialists keen to harness research and education to their commercial interests. Government support for university expansion since the 1960s has been motivated in large part by recognition of the value that graduates bring to the nation and the national economy.

With such a complex evolution, it should come as no surprise that modern universities have multiple functions, some of which are still changing and which therefore remain – rightly – contested in open debate. Universities retain a clear role as repositories of knowledge and culture, and as institutions that provide space and time for deep reflection and critical analysis of the societies in which they are embedded. They also serve to educate and to train students for employment, tasks that Willetts argues should not be seen as in opposition. Universities should also be engines of social mobility though it is questionable how well our “top” universities do that. And, following the original German model, universities in England play a major role in research and innovation, even if their connections to the wider economy could be more joined-up – issues that the Industrial Strategy and UKRI, the UK’s new super-research council, are aiming to tackle. Universities are also increasingly required to make themselves relevant to the country and their local communities, through public engagement and impact assessments, duties that have been brought into sharper focus by the evident disconnect between academics and regions of the UK that voted to leave the EU.

The job of balancing this mix of missions is made more difficult because of the swirl of politics and ideology. How much should universities seek to change the societies in which they operate? What is the optimal balance between research excellence and providing a rich educational experience for students? Where does free speech end and hate speech begin? All these questions and more Willetts discusses with considerable care and attention to detail.

One of his main preoccupations is to lay out a defence of his reform of university funding by shifting more of the burden from the public purse to students. It was a radical move, with attendant risks, but one that has not so far reduced the numbers of students from low socio-economic backgrounds, though the jury is still out on the impact of the recent replacement of maintenance grants with loans. Willetts builds a detailed case, arguing that the policy reversed the sharp decline in per-student funding that had accompanied the expansion in student numbers since the 1990s, and claims that lifting the cap on student numbers has finally delivered on the 50-year-old promise of the Robbins Report of enabling any qualified student to attend university. In support of this claim, he points to the significantly lower proportion of students from poor backgrounds attending university in Scotland, where university places are still rationed by the Scottish administration.

Of course, this case remains controversial. Willetts bemoans his failure to win greater public support for his reforms, due in part to the difficulties of communicating the income-contingent aspect of the repayments and his contention that the fact that the government will pick up any debts still unpaid after 30 years is a feature and not a bug. My concern remains that there is little to stop future administrations from changing the terms of the loans to shift even more of the cost on to graduates. Willetts maintains that any such adjustment, which would affect the public-private balance of university funding, is a proper matter for democratic debate. If so, that is a debate that universities need to participate in more vocally – and more intelligently, if they are not to be painted as simply protecting their own interests. To that end, Willetts’s proposal in the book that universities might buy their own graduates’ loans (at an appropriate, subject-dependent discount) and thereby be incentivised to ensure that their students are properly equipped for their future careers and to support them over the longer-term, is worth consideration. It raises all sorts of questions – not least of financial sustainability and the risk of perverse incentives – but, as on fee reform, opponents will have to tackle these ideas with the same level of sophistication that Willetts has brought to the argument.

Willetts’s book is not without its flaws. He mentions but remains rather coy about his disputes with the Home Office on including students in immigration figures, the misspending on alternative degree providers that happened on his watch, and the catastrophic impact of his reforms on part-time university education. I wanted him to dig deeper.

His book came too late to directly address the re-eruption of the debate over higher education funding at the general election and the subsequent brouhaha over vice-chancellors’ remuneration. These issues have played well in the popular press and put universities on the back foot. It is difficult to present yourself as an engine of life-changing social mobility when some universities chiefs are pulling in nearly half a million pounds a year (supplemented in a few cases by generous sinecures for overseeing a pension fund that is seriously failing university staff).

But it is not as simple as Adonis or Johnson seem to pretend. Adonis, an architect of higher fees under Labour, and Johnson, who has pushed for ever-greater marketisation of higher education driven by the entry of private, for-profit providers, have been less than forthcoming about the existential threats that these pose to universities. In an increasingly competitive world, it should be no surprise that institutions would compete vigorously for leaders prepared to shoulder the responsibility not just for success, but for survival. There is a case for some restraint and university chiefs should themselves be making it. Adonis may have been making the running but he is on thin ice. He has resorted to appeals to public duty, but not answered questions on his own role in approving higher salaries for the chief executive of HS2 Ltd – a public company. His stance lacks consistency and he has so far failed to come up with credible alternative policies. Nor, for that matter, has the Labour party.

The question about duty is nevertheless perfectly valid and one that must be faced – particularly if we cling, as many academics still do, to the centrality of the university as a force for good in the modern world. Are our institutions being bent out of shape by market forces? Willetts would contend that throughout history they have been shaped and reshaped by government, by industry, by international competition and by academics and students. So these arguments are not new, but universities – as communities of scholars and students – should be determined as never before to drag this fight to a higher level.

@Stephen_Curry is a professor at Imperial College. He writes here in a personal capacity. In the spirit of the argument presented here, the authors readily concedes that this article is far from complete but it’s also already too long. He therefore looks forward to further, informed discussion in the comments.

This article titled "Universities are under attack – time to drag the fight to a higher level" was written by Stephen Curry, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 2 January 2018 03.03pm

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