We must protect our universities’ freedom

Image result for universitiesIt is rare that governments get to do exactly what they want. Opposition parties, the judiciary and others have traditionally also wielded significant influence, tempering the more extreme ideas of those in power and highlighting the pitfalls of proposed policies.

This era of moderation is, however, coming to a close. Those who once held our governments to account are being systematically declawed.

Politicians who deviate from their party line are subjected to torrents of abuse and the threat of deselection. The House of Lords, with its essential powers of scrutiny, is ridiculed as stuffy and out of touch. And then there’s the Labour party, which is currently offering as much opposition to the Government as a hermit crab would to an Apache helicopter gunship.

The saving grace in all of this has been our universities and their academics, who have argued consistently on the side of reason and reasonableness.

But now our universities, too, are under threat.

It started with the gradual move – in which we were, sadly, complicit – from government funding to student tuition fees, turning higher education from a public into a private good and unleashing market forces into a domain in which they do not belong.

But it did not stop there. The new sector regulator, the Office for Students, has lost the policy-setting powers of its predecessor. The Prime Minister has launched a review of higher education funding that has more ‘red lines’ than a London bus map. And Vice Chancellors, who are forced to bear the brunt of this onslaught, have been demonised by MPs and the media for their salaries and expenses.

Whether or not this represents a concerted effort by the Government to emasculate our universities, the effect is the same. And we risk losing some of the last sane voices in the debate of our lives.

We have long been the party of thinking people, of academics and of students. We messed that up with our ill-advised coalition capitulation on raising tuition fees. But it is not too late to make amends.

So what should we do?

Firstly, we must recognise that universities do more than simply educate the next generation of graduates. Judging them solely on how happy their current students are is imprudent and short-sighted.

Secondly, we need a clear higher education policy framework, rather than a market-dominated free-for-all. It’s a fine balance, though, as we also need to protect universities’ autonomy from excessive regulation and government meddling.

And finally, we need a stable funding regime that reflects the partnership that our universities represent between students, academics and society. Some kind of graduate tax combined with funding from general taxation would fit the bill, but I’m sure there are other answers, too.

Our universities play a vital role in maintaining the health of our democracy and of our society. We need to protect their freedom to perform it well. It’s not a simple task. And there are no easy answers. But we are up to the challenge.

* Simon Perks is a writer, political philosopher and Liberal Democrat campaigner. He blogs at simonperks.com.

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.
Advert

14 Comments

  • Simonmcgrath 8th Mar '18 - 7:19pm

    Surely if the Office for Students has lost policy making power that’s a sign of less interference in universities not more.
    And do you really think there should be no criticisms of the extraordainary salaries paid to vice chancellors of indifferent universities?

  • Firstly, we must recognise that universities do more than simply educate the next generation of graduates. Judging them solely on how happy their current students are is imprudent and short-sighted.

    Indeed. We should judge them on how well they educate their students. Which suggests to me that their final exams should be set and marked by someone other than the universities themselves. To leave such things to the universities themselves is to put them in an invidious position.

  • ‘Secondly, we need a clear higher education policy framework, rather than a market-dominated free-for-all. ‘ Absolutely agree and we should not be fixing the problem of tuition fees until this is done.
    ‘Some kind of graduate tax combined with funding from general taxation would fit the bill’ Hypothecated taxation seems like a technical and political mine field to me. Every part of my liberal gut screams ‘NO’. No in principle and no as a political move for the Party.

  • Phil Beesley 9th Mar '18 - 3:23pm

    I perceive the “university problem” to be about post-16 and post-18 years age education. It isn’t much about silly pay and privileges for vice chancellors and other university managers — even though those factors are a problem.

    Once upon a time, university education was a way for men and women to signal that they were a bit different from the norm. University education was elitist. Local authorities — county and city councils — provided grants to local lads and lasses, who also competed for charitable funds for education. That turned into a formal funding system — maintenance grants — which allowed c.10% of young adults to attend higher education, not necessarily a degree course.

    At the same time, post-16 years age education offered other options. A young person could start off on a City & Guilds course as an apprentice, go for an OND, next for an HND. The further step from an HND or the like is to satisfy the demands of a professional body — ability beyond a degree certificate. Elite engineers and scientists sometimes came up the hard way.

    But we — culturally — are obsessed with degrees. We only see one way for a bright 16 year old to progress.

  • Peter Hirst 9th Mar '18 - 3:27pm

    The university campus must be preserved as the pivotal resevoir of free speech. Those who come to them must know that they will be able to conduct debate free of any hinderance. This must proceed hand in hand with our teaching, research and professional expertise. And as this is a public service, it must be suitable reimbursed.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 9th Mar '18 - 4:39pm

    Simon please see the comments by Peter and these add to your missing these aspects in your very sensible piece.

    We can reclaim students and academics if we show we did try to ensure fairer access in fees for poorer students, and we are not politically correct supporters of no platform or worse, shout down movements. We more than Tories but with some of them by nature must stand for freedom of speech. There is a real problem in us uk universities of victimisation of students who are not the majority , based on antisemitism, anti liberalism, pro one size fits and actually does not fit, same-ism !

  • Phil Beesley 9th Mar '18 - 6:13pm

    @Simon Perks: “And finally, we need a stable funding regime that reflects the partnership that our universities represent between students, academics and society.”

    The word “funding” is a challenge. I’ve known academic departments which maintained an undergraduate course, something about credibility, in order to recruit MSc and PhD candidates. A few lads and lasses get to university because a few academics keep a course running. That is not the ideal way.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

  • User AvatarSue Sutherland 18th Dec - 1:57pm
    I’m glad you mentioned the sixties Joe because otherwise I would have had to point out that not everyone over the age of 55 voted...
  • User AvatarMichael 1 18th Dec - 1:50pm
    @John Marriott Thanks (I think!) for your comment and I appreciate the sentiment although this IS a site were we discuss things and disagree. I...
  • User AvatarDJ 18th Dec - 1:46pm
    When Sturgeon debated with Cameron (back in GE debates) one pundit suggested part of the reason she did so well was that Cameron didn't know...
  • User AvatarSue Sutherland 18th Dec - 1:24pm
    Thank you for your post Geoff. The main lesson I’m taking away from this is that you and two other Lib Dem councillors represent a...
  • User AvatarRoger Billins 18th Dec - 1:08pm
    I fear now that the Government is driving the bus straight over the no deal cliff and, principally because of the awfulness of Her Majesty’s...
  • User AvatarDavid Evans 18th Dec - 12:56pm
    Don, the problem is not that "It is time for MPs to collaborate on a plan to get a vote in Parliament between the existing...