Defending British Universities

by Martin Hall on December 7, 2012

The Council for the Defence of British Universities, launched a few weeks ago, stands for “university education for the public benefit”, and for universities “as places where students can develop their capacities to the full, where research and scholarship are pursued at the highest level, and where intellectual activity can be freely conducted without regard to its immediate economic benefit”. These are critical issues at a time when our university system is undergoing some of the most traumatic changes in recent history, and I’ve joined up.

(An aside here. I nearly didn’t. The steering committee got off on the wrong foot by complaining that no Vice-Chancellors responded to their call to support them. But they clearly wrote only to selected Vice-Chancellors; a nice irony, since this is part of the problem that they seek to address.).

The CDBU is right to emphasise the present danger. It was immediately apparent that the reforms introduced after the May 2010 election shifted away from a balance between the public and private benefits of universities, and to an overwhelming emphasis on individual return on investment and market driven competition.

A significant minority of Vice-Chancellors saw this and argued against the changes and their consequences. I’ve repeatedly written about the issue, as have many others. The counter-argument was that elite universities, that had been tapped by government as legitimate claimants for the most expensive price tags (and could hope to be allowed to charge more in the future), would benefit disproportionately from the new settlement. These universities supported the Coalition’s settlement, and won the case in the animated debate within Universities UK. Unfortunately, though, there have been unintended consequences for them as well, as universities ranked high in the newspaper league tables have seen places unfilled. They, too, are now critics of government policy.

The CBDU argues that intellectual activity should be “freely conducted without regard to its immediate economic benefit”. Yes, of course. But the seismic shifts we are now seeing across the sector are equally damaging to the argument that intellectual activity should be all about economic benefit. The students whom we should be enrolling now will be the new wave of the graduate workforce in about 2017 and the following years – the workforce for the new economy that will emerge from the present, sustained, recession. Throttling back on higher education, in combination with an ageing population, the social and economic consequences of marked and increasing inequality, an insane attitude to the value of skilled migrants and a hostility to the rest of Europe is pretty close to a national death wish, captured by the metaphor of rusting nuclear submarines.

A good way of looking at this is in terms of the appropriate balance between the private benefits and the public good of universities. Both elements are always part of the mix. There are clearly private benefits to getting a degree, expressed primarily in access to better, well-paid jobs and (and often or) the opportunity of realising personal ambitions and dreams (what Amartya Sen calls realising capabilities through effective “functionings”). There are also vast, and evident, public goods in an effective national system of universities. These include a wide array of research work, innovation and professional advancement. At the cohort level, an expanding and increasingly competent graduate work force is a public good, both in gaining academic advantage and in attracting inward investment that creates a far wider halo of job opportunities (all the skilled techies, for example, that make a place like our MediaCity possible).

The core weakness in the Coalition’s approach to higher education in Britain is the surrender of the case for public goods in favour of a relentless insistence on private benefits and pseudo- market competition (there can be no real market for student places when both price and supply are centrally regulated, as is currently the case). This is the hub of the case made by the Council for the Defence of British Universities, and why this is a movement worth supporting.

This post originally appeared on Martin Hall’s blog.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

noel douglas December 7, 2012 at 1:06 pm

There is a typo in this article

“Throttling back on higher education, combined with socio-economic factors is pretty close to a national death wish, captured by the metaphor of rusting nuclear submarines.”

is repeated.

Good article all the same, though it would be nice to know what the CDBU will actually do, as it doesn’t seem like it has the teeth to really take on this government which is completely committed to privatising the whole of society, destroy the Welfare State and reduce peoples wages and conditions to attempt to restore profitability to British Capitalism

Mark Leach December 7, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Yes some editing errors there, thanks for pointing out. The article has now been amended.

Patrick Ainley December 24, 2012 at 2:26 pm

What is your attitude to the Campaign for the Public University? Have you written anything on them? I am member of both but – like you – wonder what either is going to do.

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