Howard Hotson: Our universities are at great risk. We must act now to defend them

Howard Hotson: Our universities are at great risk. We must act now to defend them
Frantic, unprecedented reform is threatening fundamental academic principles and the purpose of higher education itself

Universities are among the UK's most successful institutions. Collectively, they enjoy a global reputation that few British institutions can match. Their research produces innovations of the highest order. Their teaching attracts a hugely disproportionate share of the world's international students.

Yet their future is being gambled on an unprecedented programme of radical reforms. Nothing similar has been tried elsewhere. No democratic mandate has been sought. These changes are grounded in wishful ideological assumptions. Evidence suggests they will do more harm than good.

Such is the frantic pace of this revolution that few outside universities are aware of its gigantic scope. Its financial dimension is familiar in outline to the general public. Domestic tuition fees, unheard of only 15 years ago, have been trebled this academic year, while 80% of direct public funding has been withdrawn from undergraduate teaching. Even before these changes, public spending on higher education was lower in the UK than almost any other developed country, while business spending on research and development was equally low and falling. Now, tuition fees in England are, on average, the highest in the world.

Yet as public and corporate money is withdrawn, the priorities and preconceptions of politics and business are being imposed on universities more forcefully than ever. Research funding in the sciences is diverted to meet the demands of industry; funding for the humanities is explicitly tied to party-political slogans. Universities, once regarded as self-governing communities of students and teachers seeking deeper understanding, are now line-managed like private corporations, devoted to maximising performance metrics which do not remotely capture what universities aspire to achieve.

These management models impoverish teaching, undermine creativity, trivialise research, and alienate teachers. Worse still, this market system transforms students from active apprentices in the craft of higher learning to passive consumers attempting to leverage their purchasing power into high lifetime earnings. Despite public homage to the knowledge economy, this new regime seems designed to make the careers of the next generation of academics as precarious and unrewarding as possible.

The culmination of this policy is the introduction into Britain of the for-profit university model which has proved so catastrophic to students and taxpayers in the US. Commercial firms are lobbying for the legal redefinition of what it means to be a "university" in England. Why? Because their future profits depend on debasing the very institution they pretend to emulate.

No organisation exists to defend academic values and the institutional arrangements best suited to fostering them. The numerous "mission groups" – the Russell Group, Universities UK, University Alliance, and the rest – do not represent universities as such. They represent senior university administrators, whose primary task is to advance financial interests. Academic unions defend the working conditions of academics, not the values that make their work worthwhile. Learned societies promote individual disciplines, not learning as such. In such conditions, proposals which subvert fundamental academic principles meet no effective opposition.

Many of Britain's most eminent academics and public intellectuals have watched these developments with mounting alarm. Scores have come together to consider how best to resist these changes before the damage they cause is beyond repair. Among their number are past and current presidents of Britain's academies of arts and sciences, Nobel prize winners, and a former poet laureate.

The inaugural meeting of the Council for the Defence of British Universities takes place on Tuesday. The question it confronts is of vital national importance. Will the UK continue to enjoy one of its most outstanding assets? Many of those most able to judge have concluded that it will not, unless strenuous efforts are made to reverse the radical reform of a fundamentally sound system.

The Guardian, 12/11/12