The vote of no confidence in Universities Minister David Willetts was passed today by Congregation, with an overwhelming majority of 283 votes for and just five against.
Today’s near unanimous vote shows the start of an academic backlash against coalition policy in higher education.
It is the first time since 1985 that Oxford has got involved so publicly in the political process, and marks Oxford as the first English University to pass a motion of no confidence in a higher education minister.
The motion, that “Congregation instructs council to communicate to the government that the university has no confidence in the policies of the Minister of Higher Education” was debated by Oxford academics this afternoon in the Sheldonian Theatre before the vote was taken.
Each of the 23 academics who spoke before the University’s parliament, resoundingly endorsed the motion urging their fellow academics to vote in favour, leaving little doubt that the motion would be carried.
Students showed their support outside the Sheldonian by cheering tutors as they walked in and chanting slogans such as, ‘David Willetts makes no sense, tutors vote no confidence’. Throughout the day, OUSU had organised for students to rally academics to attend Congregation and place their vote of no confidence in Willetts.
Standing outside the Sheldonian after the Congregation meeting had finished, OUSU President David Barclay said to Cherwell, “This is really important and exciting day for higher education. This is the first university ever to pass a motion of no confidence in a minister. Now that we have taken a stand, we can create a momentum for the rest of the country to follow.”
Just after the results of the motion were announced, Anna Lori-Wainwright, University Lecturer in Human Geography of China, who had voted in favour of the motion spoke to Cherwell.
She said, “I fully support the student movement against what the government is doing. I am very pleased and still surprised that there were even five people in this room who found it in their hearts to vote against the motion.
‘I think we need to be realistic about the impact that this kind of move will have – we must not to sit on our laurels and think this will be enough. We need more lobbying either through unions, collaborations, academic and student development to show that this is not good enough. The damage done if this goes ahead is irreparable.
“I have never come to Congregation before, other academics here also do not come regularly. This is a really busy time of year for us all and it is hard for people to drop commitments. But we have come for this, which shows how much we care.”
The motion was formally moved by Professor Robert Gildea, Professor of Modern History. Prof Gildea said, “This is a very weighty business, a step of historic action. Higher education policies that he is proposing are the word of the coalition government as a whole. In this unprecedented way we are calling him to account. The future of higher education as we have known it since the second world war is under threat from government policies which are reckless, incoherent and incompetent.”
The motion was seconded by Dr Karma Nabulsi, University Lecturer in International Relations and a Fellow at St Edmund Hall, who spoke of what Congregation members had in common:
“What we share is a common attachment to the purpose of higher education which is now under grave threat. [A vote of no confidence] is the most professional gesture which we can take. Our vision is threatened by the policies of the current gov. A vote for this motion is an affirmation of who we are and the traditions which we wish to preserve.’
The debate was then open to the house, and a further 21 academics spoke in favour of the motion, as well as OUSU President David Barclay.
Professor Howard Hotson noted that “Current government policy is perverse. Such fundamental misconceptions inspire no confidence whatsoever.”
Senior Proctor, Dr Colin Thompson warned, “We are not here to bask in the spirit of rhetoric. We are here to address the government on issues which are our very raison d’etre, in the hope that it will listen.
“Society needs people who are prepared to ask awkward questions and challenge received ideas or it stagnates. Loss of public funding to arts and social studies is the logical conclusion of the flawed economic premise of government economic policy.”
Dr Paul Coones joked, “There are only two kinds of famous academic – the quick and the dead.” He highlighted that Oxford should be proactive and set the agenda, rather than always be “responding, justifying and defending ourselves.”
Many speakers warned of the dangers of putting a price on education. Dr Laura Kirkley said, “Brilliant minds hail from all sections of society. We must be able to select post graduates of the quality of their minds, not the quantity of their bank accounts. If the proposed reforms go ahead without challenge or protest from us, the result will be whole portions of our populations disenfranchised and priced out of higher education.”
Mr Bernard Sufrin opened his speech with the Marxist allusion, “A spectre is haunting our university system – the spectre of private profit.”
The disastrous effects the government’s policies were having on Oxford’s reputation abroad were discussed by Dr Abdel Razzaq Takriti.
Next OUSU President David Barclay spoke, powerfully damning the government’s policies on behalf of the student body. “The fundamental lack of confidence for the student body stems from a gut sense that the core of the governmnet’s plan is rotten.
‘The people I speak for will feel the real cost of the mixed messages and U-turn. I speak for a generation of brilliant minds who will never become graduates. I speak for a generation of talented but disadvantaged students who will never be able to come to Oxford. I speak for all these people and today I need you to speak to them too.”
After a break in procedings, the final few speeches were then given. Dr Conrad Leyser invoked the history of discussion and debate on the topic of the price of education: beginning with Socratic debates of wisdom, and moving forward to the debates of Irish scholars and the foundation for learning in Latin Europe. “We are subverting the basis on which wisdom has been built upon for centuries, if not millennia”, he said.
Professor Patrick McGuinness said, “Politicians seem bent on destroying higher education. This government might be a coalition of Lib Dems and Conservative. But no government in the last twenty years has been a friend to higher education.
‘By expressing our lack of confidence in this government we can actually change something of the policies which will be fisted upon us. We all fundamentally realise that this government does not know what its doing.”
Finally, Professor Gildea, who had proposed the motion at the start of Congregation, then gave his response to the debate, with a final few words of encouragement for academics to vote for the motion: “This is a historic moment to make a difference, let us seize it.”
Dr Kate Tunstall, who gave the closing speech in Congregation, said after to Cherwell, “I think this university has overwhelmingly no confidence in the government’s higher education policies – not in this particular minister as there are probably just as many more with similar policies waiting in the wings. The message is really really clear.
“The way students and tutors worked together to make this vote possible is really encouraging – I think it is appropriate now for students to have membership in Congregation as they do in Cambridge.”
Beth Evans, a member of Oxford Education Campaign who had been leading the solidarity protests outside, said, “I’m really pleased and I hope this will make a really strong statement to the government.”