Congregation says No Minister

Rachael McLellan

Congregation, the University’s sovereign body, united in opposition to the Higher Education minister David Willetts at its meeting on Tuesday.

OUSU President David Barclay said the vote, which mandates the University Council “to communicate to Government that the University of Oxford has no confidence in the policies of the Minister for Higher Education,” shows “students and academics coming together for the first time to reject the idea of the market in Higher Education.”

New College French tutor Dr Rowan Tomlinson said that the almost unanimous decision shows “transpolitical, cross-party” opposition to the policies brought by the coalition government in the past year. All but one speech showed strong support for the motion, with some receiving over a minute of applause.

Patrick McGuinness, Professor of French at St. Anne’s College, said: “These are not ideological or political issues…it’s about us as an institution, as a profession wanting our politicians to think seriously about the policies they seek to implement”.

In his opening speech, Worcester College fellow Professor Robert Gildea, who proposed the motion of no confidence, described the policies of the coalition government as “reckless, incoherent and incompetent.”

Gildea said the government was “crippling students with debt or driving them away from Higher Education with fear of debt” and argued that the government’s higher education policy is “incoherent because they promise to promote social mobility while implementing regressive fiscal policies, which make this impossible”, adding that “these policies would be laughable if so much were not at stake.”

Professor McGuiness told Congregation “something can come of this, it’s worth fighting for” during what he described as “terminal times for universities and higher education.”

“We accepted cut after cut, policy after policy because we thought we had no other option. We accepted to be evaluated, undervalued then devalued. This cuts across all of that anger and shows us what universities are about. Regardless of our political persuasions, we are united in thinking that the government has no thinking.”

Dr Paul Coones of Hertford College said it would be an “utter disgrace if Higher Education were to be the only sector to not stand up for itself as a public good”.

According to Dr Charlie Louth, Lecturer in German, “if governments start to pursue ideas which are dangerous for Higher Education, we should not kow-tow and hope for the best.”

Dr Kate Tunstall, in the final speech of proceedings, said: “education is incompatible with marketisation, students are not customers, teachers are not service providers”.

Beth Evans, OUSU VP (Graduates) called the vote a “fabulous result,” while student protesters who were gathered outside celebrated by playing the Hot Chocolate song I Believe in Miracles (You Sexy Thing) and cheering as academics processed out of the Sheldonian.

Speeches given emphasised the importance of this vote as a non-political issue. Dr Karma Nabulsi, Politics Tutor at Teddy Hall, while seconding the motion, addressed delegate: “Not all of you will share every idea you hear today but we do share is what brings us to propose this motion, a common belief in the value of education”. She continued: “voting for this motion is the most unifying gesture we can make”

Nabulsi said the vote will “make a real difference because the numbers in the room represents the number as a whole. Colleagues have been exceptionally busy this week, with exams, marking and committees, so to get that number in the room on a week like this shows how strong support is for the motion. The Vice-Chancellor can now carry this forward with a strong wind behind him.”

However, Professor of Pharmacology Antony Galione defended Willetts’ record, saying it was “unfair not to mention the Minister’s record on science.” He said: “I hope the minister will take stock of the constructive criticism today and engage again with the advice of professionals.”

In a statement, the Department of Business and Innovation said: “Universities have always been bastions of free speech and debate. However, our student and university finance reforms are fairer than the present system and affordable for the nation. Our reforms put students in the driving seat while putting universities on a sustainable footing for the future.”