In over 30 years of experience in higher education in the UK, I cannot recall a period when universities were the target of such strong and sustained public and media attacks.
The current wave of attacks began before Christmas with government criticism of universities for doing too little to protect free speech on campus. They continued to criticize the pay levels of Vice Chancellors (Presidents), with the highest paid Vice Chancellor (Dame Glynis Breakwell of the University of Bath) earning more than three times the Prime Minister’s salary.
Then there was a TV show inspired by access to information requests for vice-chancellors’ expenses. It estimated that the Vice-Chancellors and their senior colleagues had claimed nearly £ 8million (US $ 11million) over the past two years.
The individual cases included a vice-chancellor who claimed £ 5,187 for flights and accommodation at a five-star hotel in Singapore and another who racked up a bill of £ 3,107 for a five-night stay at another hotel five stars there. There was even a payment of £ 1,600 for the cost of moving a vice-chancellor’s dog from Australia.
No doubt delighted at any diversion from the thankless task of trying to concoct a concerted government position on Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May intervened on February 20 in a speech criticizing the cost of university tuition fees in England and announcing a review of the funding universities (the Labor opposition has already pledged to remove tuition fees if it wins the next election).
Finally, at the moment, the older universities are locked in a bitter argument with their professors over increasing faculty contributions to their pensions, an argument where there appears to be some public sympathy for the staff in strike.
Decades in preparation
Two questions emerge from this brief overview: Are these problems purely transitory or do they have deeper underlying causes and are there common factors between them?
On the former, it’s not hard to see the current complaints against universities as emblematic of the deeper cracks in British society revealed by the Brexit vote. It is well established that the best predictor of a “Leave” or “Stay” vote was the voter education level. Areas with a high concentration of universities or graduates were among the strongest “leftovers”.
With large numbers of staff and students from overseas, universities are clearly the “citizens of nowhere” vilified in one of Ms. May’s previous speeches. They also embody the “experts” castigated by Arch-Leaver Michael Gove (and more recently the Chief Secretary of the Treasury), and are indeed responsible for training most of them.
So it’s hard not to conclude that while there is a strong synthetic quality in the current attacks – notably, the government is doing everything it can to distract voters from the highest tuition fees in outside the elite US system – this is highly unlikely to happen. be a passing phase; it could indeed get worse as the ‘Leavers’ seek scapegoats for the almost inevitable gap between post-Brexit Britain they would like to see and the messy (and impoverished) outcome that increasingly seems likely.
This conclusion is reinforced by the answer to the second question, whether there is a connection between the various critiques. There are actually three “common factors”.
The first is globalization. As everyone knows, there has been a huge increase in the volume and proportion of goods and services traded across national borders over the past 30 years or so. Higher education – which has always been international in character – has been a remarkable example.
Millions of students and staff are now studying and working outside their home countries and Britain has been one of the top destinations. UK universities have led the way in establishing links and partnerships with universities and colleges abroad, even establishing campuses and study centers there. The substantial income from all this activity makes it possible to compensate for the historical underfunding of teaching and research. This brings us to the second common factor, privatization.
Beginning in the 1980s with the withdrawal of the foreign student fee subsidy – which some Scandinavian countries still have – successive UK governments have gradually sought to shift university tuition fees onto the ‘user’, the student or the graduation.
Following the decisions of a fairly recent government of which the Prime Minister was a high-ranking member, England is now almost the only one to have a system where almost the entire cost of university education is covered by the tuition fees, a system of “vouchers” of the kind strongly advocated by the dean of neoclassical economists, Milton Friedman, but generally viewed as impractical and undesirable.
The government has also encouraged the entry into the market of private colleges and now universities. It is true that the government continues to subsidize the loans associated with the fees, but the direction of the move away from state support is clear (and, probably, irreversible).
Finally, to enable universities to face these challenges of increased competition and privatization, the government encouraged them to adopt methods of corporate governance and management, starting with the Jarratt report of 1985.
In the early 2000s, rectors of universities in the South East were invited to discuss with the local Regional Development Agency (RDA) the possibilities of obtaining grants for development projects with the private sector. Whatever project suggested, and whatever vice-chancellor responded to it, the response was always, “It sounds very interesting, what does it bring to my university?”
The main representative of the GDR, a lady whom I had known well from my time as a civil servant, was clearly shocked by these responses and remarked: “These vice-chancellors, they are much more commercial than the business people we meet. . This policy has at least been a success.
Professor Roger Brown is the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton Solent, UK. He has been a visiting professor or professor at 10 other universities and has held other senior positions in higher education. Prior to that, he was a senior official at the Department of Trade and Industry and an administrator at the Inner London Education Authority.