On the 3rd November, Lord Mandelson announced what his Department of Business, Innovation and Skills described as “a new framework for the future success of higher education”. Perhaps this could lead to a certain kind of success, but it hammers with renewed vigour another nail into the coffin of universities in the UK.
As his Department stated, key measures set out in the framework, along with my responses, are as follows
- More competition between universities, giving greater priority to programmes that meet the need for high level skills – Universities are not, and should not be seen as being, merely about high level skill provision. Obviously this depends on how we define ‘high level skills’, but alongside those needed to make a prosperous economy (look how dismally our bankers have delivered over the last couple of years), are those skills associated with critical reflection and an ability to challenge taken for granted assumptions about the ‘good’ of our contemporary capitalist society. Competition is also most definitely not the answer. Universities work best when there is collaboration and cooperation rather than competition.
- Business to be more engaged in the funding and design of programmes, sponsorship of students, and work placements – yes, it is indeed important that universities work closely with the private sector – after all, they benefit hugely from the investment of the state in delivering the cannon fodder of global capitalism. However, the suggestion that the private sector should increasingly fund higher education smacks of the government trying to find others to pay for its failed commitment to furnish our society with a fit for purpose university system.
- Creating more part-time, work-based and foundation degrees to make it easier for adults to go to university, with routes from apprenticeships through to Foundation Degrees and other vocational programmes – universities should not fundamentally be about providing foundation degrees – leave these to other types of institution. The central purpose of a university should be about pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward, through high quality research and the encouragement of able young people to engage in rigorous scientific and scholarly enquiry.
- Encouraging universities to consider contextual data in admissions, as one way of ensuring that higher education is available to all young people who have the ability to benefit – this is social engineering. Yes, of course universities should seek to provide outstanding learning opportunities to those most able to benefit, but the simple mechanisms recommended are simply not sophisticated enough to enable the identification of those who can contribute most to the UK’s universities.
- Universities setting out clearly what students can expect in terms of the nature and quality of courses offered – yes, and the best already do so! But please, universities are fundamentally about moving the boundaries of research forward, and encouraging the development of enquiring minds in the most able people rather than passing on existing accepted knowledge.
- Sustaining our world class research base by continuing to focus on excellence, concentrating research funding where needed to secure critical mass and impact – the highest quality research does not necessarily need to be concentrated. The most innovative research is often delivered by individuals working in isolation – indeed, concentrating research activity based on past success criteria, will actually restrict the development of novel and exciting innovation. Real innovation usually happens ‘at the edges’.
- Encouraging collaboration between universities on world class research, especially in high cost science – the rationale for this is that we cannot afford high cost science. But we cannot afford not to! Furthermore, not all world class research is expensive. Indeed, many Nobel prize winners actually do low cost research!
As I have argued elsewhere, universities are about far more than providing a second rate ‘education’ for students not really interested in learning. We can afford a high quality university sector by reducing the number of universities and the number of students wasting their time pretending to study at them.
Why is it that the UK wants to treat universities as businesses when so many countries in the world still provide free higher education to their people – look for example at Finland and many of the German Länder? Why is it that the government persists in destroying a university system that was once the pride of the world? Perhaps most surprisingly of all, why are students and academics not rising up in revolutionary protest as did our comrades in the late 1960s?
The time has come to stand up and be counted. We must resist this Philistine, ignorant and damaging attempt to destroy what is left of our universities.