Defending universities: engaging the public

Defending universities: engaging the public

The Campaign for the Public University welcomes the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. The two campaigns share common values. These values were articulated in a critique of the Government’s White Paper in July 2011, and developed subsequently in an Alternative White Paper, both written together with other campaign groups. The Government has avoided debate, but the issues are pressing and vital to the future of higher education.

Those of us who are academics are deeply concerned about university autonomy, the reduction of higher education to training and the damaging consequences of audit culture. However, we also need to engage with wider publics and how and why they might value higher education. What is at issue is the role of education in the global knowledge economy and the reproduction of advantage, where the only public interest is understood to be the interest of the taxpayer. As Holmwood and Bhambra have argued, under this neo-liberal conception of education it is transformed from a social right into a positional good.

Yet the British Social Attitude Survey has consistently shown that the public values higher education as providing more than the means of getting a better job. They also believe that fees were too high under the previous funding system and are against differential fees for the same courses. The most recent survey shows a small shifting of attitudes. In general, the public continues to regard university education as valuable. However, those with degree-level qualifications (graduates of previous funding systems) tend now to favour fees and also a reduction in student numbers graduates. This indicates a shift toward the defence of market position against the social mission that public higher education previously served.

We are at a pivotal moment. As the CDBU argues, Vice-Chancellors have been supine and quiet in the face of the transformation of higher education in England. University mission groups have also not represented the system as a whole. However, the latter are breaking up and what is emerging is the first sign of a new, restricted Ivy League, potentially willing to go it alone and wrapped in the mantle of traditional university values. We should all heed the warning posted by the Chair of CDBU’s steering committee, Howard Hotson, not to look to the Ivy League. A system in which a few universities flourish at the expense of the rest, is not in the public interest. Nor is it one that the majority of academic and other staff in universities could support.

Campaign for the Public University, 14/11/12