Nearly 400 academics signed a document strongly criticizing government plans for higher education last week.
The publication, “In Defence of Public Higher Education”, is presented as an alternative to the Government’s white paper drawn up following the Browne Review, and predicts serious detrimental effects for universities.
The document condemned the government for ignoring the public value of higher education to instead focus on “private benefits to individuals” and called for a halt to the “commodification of higher education”, arguing that the reforms will “put the market at the heart of the system […and] encourage students to think of themselves as consumers”.
One Oxford academic involved in drafting the alternative white paper suggested that the document was necessary “irrespective of whether the Coalition Government was likely to listen”, but that with several critiques of the white paper being published, “together they are very significant”. Another compared it to the campaign for changes to NHS reforms, but added, “by comparison, the defence of the universities […] has hardly got off the launching pad. Whether it can or will is totally up in the air at present.”
He also said that the “relative lack of student activity” may be “because the implications and impact of the intended changes have not been explained clearly enough”.
The teaching staff also argued that changes which the Government describes as financially necessary are in fact ideologically motivated, while registering their concerns that the paper’s focus on undergraduates neglects the importance of postgraduate study.
The new paper went on to compare the plans to the nation’s “slow- motion moral decline”, which the Prime Minister has blamed for August’s riots.
But another don hoped the publication would “reopen a space for students to express their own views” following last year’s protests, “reinforced this time by an emerging consensus amongst senior academics and university administrators”. Both academics wished to remain anonymous.
A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills defended the Government’s higher education white paper as “proposals that will put students at the heart of the system, with a stronger focus on improving social mobility, funding following the choices of students and making universities more accountable on teaching quality”. She went on to address recent criticism: “All responses to the consultation will be carefully considered and we will respond formally in due course”.
OUSU has published a draft response, which “welcome[s] the White Paper’s focus on the experience of students and high quality teaching” but rejects the idea of students as consumers.
Other bodies have added to criticism of the government. Universities UK voiced similar concerns about “social mobility, student choice, institutional subject mix and the future viability of some institutions” if the plans are brought in. The British Academy accused the government’s white paper of “a very limited vision” which “could put at risk the quality of UK higher education” and damage its international reputation.
The coalition government published their higher education white paper, Students at the Heart of the System, in June this year following a period of extensive consultation after the Browne Review.