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Oxford academics criticise Higher Education Reform

A coalition of the UK’s most high-profile intellectuals has launched a campaign to protect universities from the influence of the state and the market. The Council for the Defence of British Universities held its inaugural meeting on Tuesday calling for new members, funding and ideas.

Alan Bennett, Richard Dawkins, Lord Bragg, Lord May of Oxford, Dame A S Byatt, Sir David Attenborough are amongst the 65 writers, academics and broadcasters who have jointly founded the Council, many with strong ties to Oxford.

The council criticised the reform of Higher Education in England, particularly the Coalition’s decision to cut all direct state funding for arts, languages and humanities courses whilst continuing to subsidise science, technology, engineering and maths.

Sir Keith Thomas, historian and fellow of All Souls College, was primarily responsible for drawing up the Council’s manifesto which highlights the need to defend universities’ autonomy, to free scholarship from short-term economic concerns and to make university education accessible to all students who can benefit from it.

Professor Thomas says “I find much that is repugnant in the treatment of our universities by the present government and its recent predecessors,” criticising “the ever-increasing government regulation of academic life.”

According to Sir Thomas, “The very purpose of the university is grossly distorted by the attempt to create a market in higher education. Students are regarded as ‘consumers’ and encouraged to invest in the degree course they think most likely to enhance their earning prospects. Academics are seen as ‘producers’, whose research is expected to focus on topics of commercial value and whose ‘output’ is measured against a single scale and graded like sacks of wheat.”

Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement, he speaks of a “deep dissatisfaction which pervades the university sector.” For Sir Thomas, “the understandable concern to improve the nation’s economic performance, coupled with an ideological faith in the virtues of the market, has meant that the central values of the university are being sidelined or forgotten.”

“Scientists and scholars should be permitted to pursue knowledge and understanding of the physical and human world in which we live and to do so for their own sake, regardless of commercial value,” he added.

According to Baroness Deech, a founding member of the council and former Principal of St Anne’s College, “University education is for the public good, regardless of who pays for it, and ought not to be put to gain political advantages.”

She feels the government is tightening its grip “over entry standards, the right sort of students, fees and scholarships, the size of the student population and the quality of teaching provision.”

At the inaugural meeting, Professor Gordon Campbell FBA and member of the Steering Committee, identified the need, “in the first instance, to articulate what has gone wrong, to understand how one of the world’s greatest systems of universities has come to be threatened by managerialism and oppressive layers of bureaucracy.”

However Tom Wakeford, Senior Research Fellow at University of Edinburgh, writing in The Telegraph explained “we are no longer in the world of the 1980s BBC comedy drama A Very Peculiar Practice, when the arguments could be understood as a simple case of academic freedom versus corporate greed.” 

According to the Professor Wakeford, the claim that academics know best “is both out of date and damaging. Some 17 billion pounds of public funds will be spent on universities this year. Such a level of resources can only be morally justified if built on the basis of a dialogue with the public.” 

David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, welcomed the launch of the new independent body. “The Council will create welcome space for well-informed debate about the future of higher education.”

 The Minister countered the Council’s criticisms, “To see the new Council as simply an attack on the government of the day misses the point. It is important that people understand what our reforms are doing. They save public money while simultaneously protecting university income.” 

According to Mr Willetts, Britain’s universities are world-class and the Council will help them remain so. “Education is already a great British export industry. We should be celebrating its vigour and diversity and exporting it across the world.”

Charlotte Greene, a second-year from Exeter commented, “as the government no longer pays for student fees it should have proportionally less influence within universities.”

Nicholas Evans a graduate student from Wadham, thinks the Council “is a significant development, which will help to highlight the extent of the attacks the system of public education in this country.”

“The attempts by the government to force marketisation, stratification and privatisation through the sector need to be exposed and challenged,” he explained.

Evans, a supporter of the Socialist Worker Student Society, added that “The movement to oppose the government benefits from initiatives such as this. However, it also needs students and staff to organise together from below.”

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