Why the CDBU needs to be unrealistic

Guest post by Michael Wayne (Brunel University)

CDBU welcomes a diversity of views. If you would like to contribute to the conversation contact us.

The CDBU’s first meeting for the general membership was generally very heartening. It was titled ‘After The Election’ which meant that it was nicely, but perhaps also problematically poised between the urgency of influencing political debate in the short term, before election manifestos are written up and a longer term perspective. For there is a potential danger that in trying to influence the political debate now, the CDBU compromises on the values it has staked out so eloquently on its website. In my view the CDBU should resist the temptation to concede on the ground of an ‘individual’ contribution to Higher Education costs, still less start thinking about whether a cap on 6K fees – which apparently the Labour Party is thinking about – would be acceptable.

As a number of speakers pointed out, at one level, the economic argument is a red herring. Whether costs are socialised or individualised, the state still has to pay for Higher Education. The likelihood of getting even half of that back from a fee system in thirty years time, looks unlikely, meaning that the present system is costing the tax payer more than the previous arrangement. At another level though, the mechanism which we chose to fund Higher Education is crucial because whether it is socialised or individualised underpins the values which will be cultivated within the sector. It is clear that the CDBU’s defence of a public university system, espousing a public ethos of real choice, real accountability and real diversity and real access, can only be delivered by a socialised system of funding. Fees inevitably mean competition, inequality and the reduction of choice and access.

Now, it is not because our arguments are  unsound, weak, poorly evidence-based and irrational that they are unlikely to get much of a hearing from the current crop of policy makers and politicians.  Our arguments are none of those things. But our arguments will largely fall on deaf ears because the current system that was implemented after the last General Election has been a long time in the making, prepared by successive governments and part of a much wider set of policy trends internationally.  Those policy trends are denigrating the very public values and the (remaining) public institutions which underpin them, which the CDBU seeks to defend and renew. The political consensus however at the top, in the elite decision making forums, has decisively abandoned those values and the public institutions which practiced them. All is now about the market, competition, profit. These are the highest values for those that are in political power now – and that is true across the mainstream parties.  In this context, the CDBU will need to hold its nerve. It will need to be unrealistic because being ‘realistic’ means conceding to that political consensus which is absolutely antithetical to the values that the members of the CDBU hold dear.

Now, this is not a call for the CDBU to embrace irrelevance and marginality. For the political consensus is an elite consensus, it is not one shared by the majority of people who have any contact with the Higher Education sector nor is it one that the public at large share. The CDBU will need to engage with the policy makers but not concede on its principles. Rational debate is very unlikely to change the current generation of political leaders and civil servants who draft policy. They have drunk deeply from the well of neo-liberal capitalism and they have had most of their rational faculties lobbied out of them by the self-serving interests of private rent seeking companies hungry to tap into public tax receipts. Where political change will come from is not in the first instance from the Westminster crowd, but in persuading everyone else who has a stake in Higher Education that there is an alternative.

The CDBU is a fantastic initiative because it gives all those stakeholders that are currently in separate organisations or none, a place to gather, a platform to build and keep alive a different vision of what universities should be and what they should do. It is to be hoped that the CDBU will embolden those other organisations – such as the NUS and UCU – to take a stand with the CDBU against the drive to privatise and commodify education. For that the CDBU must be prepared to look ‘out of touch’ and be unembarrassed about it. Because we do not want to be ‘in touch’ with current policy trends, Those trends themselves are ‘in touch’ with and represent the interests of only a tiny, tiny minority of people who will benefit from the destruction of a public service university system. The CDBU must stand for and speak to the interests of the majority and that means holding firm and espousing the alternative principles of the public good.

CDBU is inclusive

CDBU works to defend all British universities. We have members and supporters from every part of the sector and beyond: from professors to undergraduates; from Oxbridge to the Million+ group; from departments of Art History to Neurobiology.

We’re also backed by people with no direct links to higher education who share our belief that our universities are a public good that help make Britain what it is. They are the finest in Europe and rival America’s Ivy League in the global rankings – despite having far less funding. They bring in billions to our economy – and untold intangible benefits. Around the world, our universities are among the UK’s most famous institutions.

Yet they face unprecedented threats. The current government’s reforms were pushed through at great speed with little Parliamentary scrutiny, even less support from academics and students, and no democratic mandate. We believe that, unopposed, they will permanently alter the nature of our higher education sector.

However, we also recognize that these changes are, in many ways, just the extension of the previous government’s approach. CDBU is a non-partisan group, and we welcome the support of members of all political parties and none.

Government policy harms all those with an interest in our universities. However, it impacts different groups in different ways.

For example:

  • Undergraduates, and all those who aspire to university, are suffering from higher fees and years of debt. Average fees have risen to £8,500 per year, though the government had claimed that fees over £6,000 would be ‘exceptional’. Those from less privileged backgrounds are especially vulnerable.
  • The end of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has made it harder for many pupils to even have a chance to apply to a university.
  • Students also face a reduced range of courses. Increasingly, programs that are cheaper to teach and hence more profitable are edging out more involving subjects.
  • Graduates and postgraduate students are finding it more difficult to get a foot on the academic ladder. Increasing numbers are forced to resort to unpaid internships and ‘volunteer’ positions – sometimes doing months of research and teaching for free.
  • Researchers and lecturers face funding cuts, especially in the arts and humanities. Job insecurity and threatened closure and merging of departments is a further blow to morale.
  • Marketization pits universities and academics against each other. It means they are encouraged to compete, not on real quality, but on simplistic and short-sighted ‘metrics’ such as the number of publications per year. This creates perverse incentives: academics are forced to devote more time to research, and less to teaching and mentoring, harming students. Getting out ‘good’ publications becomes more important than doing good research.
  • Bureaucracy, marketing and public relations are consuming an ever-increasing slice of the shrinking pool of university money. Instead of providing the best possible student experience, it’s now more important to provide the appearance of doing so.
  • Newer universities have suffered worst of all. Without the accumulated capital of the older institutions, they are more vulnerable to the threats described here.
  • Taxpayers have woken up to find that the reforms, presented as a way of reducing the deficit, have actually increased it.

Everyone stands to lose from these ill-conceived and mismanaged policies. Some will suffer worse than others. Some have been affected more quickly. But no-one is immune.

Why is a new organization needed? CDBU was founded to make a stand for the university sector as a whole. We recognize the vital importance of the student and trade unions, and we hope to work with them as closely as possible. However, we believe that as well as defending our particular interests, we must unite to protect our public university system – one of the country’s great success stories.

Each university faces unique challenges, but they all share the same root cause. In this instance, we really are all in it together.

Therefore we encourage everyone who cares about higher education to join us. We welcome people from diverse backgrounds and believe that the broader our base, the stronger we’ll become. Find out more and Join Us.

Why universities matter

Tamson Pietsch spoke recently at the Guardian’s Future of Higher Education Summit about the importance of universities, and it’s now gone up on their website. You can watch the talk here, or read the text below.

“As a panel we were asked to speak about what the sector can do to pull together and communicate the value of higher education to politicians and the public. I just want to make three points.

First, I think we need to begin by calling the problem by its name; the problem that besets British universities at the moment. We often get caught up in all the issues whether that’s open access or REF or student fees – we get lost in the detail or we get crisis fatigue. But I think these are all symptoms of a problem that I call the enclosure of the epistemic commons.

Second, I think we can put our own house in order. That involves a number of things. It involves thinking about ourselves as engaged in a shared project across our various diverse institutions; it involves abolishing the mission groups; and it also involves democratising internally – there is often a real disconnect between the official image of a university projected by managers and that which academics such as myself feel that we are engaged in, which is very messy an involves students crying in your office sometimes.

But then third, and perhaps most importantly, I think we need to tell new kinds of stories about who we are and what we do. At the CDBU we have various ideas about how we can do this, but I think we need to articulate the value of our institutions. I think universities are really remarkable kinds of institutions. They are one of the few places where older people and younger people come together in a partnership; where alive people and dead people talk to each other across the distances of time; where people who are inside the institution collaborate with people who are outside the institution; where people who are here collaborate with people who are far away. They are places dedicated to the messy, on-going, and uncertain business that is life, and this is deeply, deeply human. Unfortunately these are qualities that are not tailored to the marketised, priced world where value is commodified and preferably tradable, but it’s exactly for these reasons that they are very, very precious institutions and it’s the reason that I think we need to defend them.”

Also in Brazil: ‘We need to say no’

Guest blog by Roberto Alamino, a Brazilian theoretical physicist who has worked in the UK since 2006. 

It took me some time to notice that something was changing in British higher education – maybe because the changes have accelerated in recent years, or maybe because when I moved to the UK in 2006 I had just finished my PhD in theoretical physics and was more worried about getting a job. When you’re worried about surviving, it’s easy to forget other important things happening around you. Once I realised it, though, I also realised that the issue goes well beyond education. It is a much larger assault on culture, critical and free-thinking, and it threatens not only science, but also arts and philosophy.

A couple of weeks ago, after I joined CDBU, I decided to talk to people from Brazil to check my suspicions that an interdisciplinary phenomenon might also be an international one. I was happily surprised to find that they said ‘no’. Still, they suggested that I take a look at the website of the Union of Academics of the University of São Paulo (ADUSP). When I did I was surprised again, this time not pleasantly. The picture it painted of a Brazilian university system in crisis was one that seemed familiar from my British experience:

“The public university, stronghold of critical thinking, intellectual rebellion, cultural freedom and political citizenship, find itself ever more reduced to a submissive position. The dominant political forces in administration have the urge to domesticate the university as a sine qua non condition to open space for mercantile values and practices that have been implanted in the Brazilian higher education, inexorably, since the 90’s.”

“The present project is even more encompassing and intends to incorporate all public higher education institutions. It concerns itself with the task of subjecting the university to the interests of the capital, what requires turning scientists into businessmen – or ‘entrepreneurs’. It tries to break the backbone of the teaching body, be it by convincing them to join this ideology, or by a control exercised by means of an unending sequence of ‘evaluations’ and certifications.”

Although there are huge differences between higher education in Brazil and the UK, I could easily find myself reading the above paragraph in a British newspaper.

“The positivist ‘scientometry’ adopted and imposed by CAPES – its rankings, quantifications, Qualis [a particular ‘quality index’ for journals introduced by CAPES], evaluations – found a fertile ground in the meritocratic and punitive vocation of the bureaucracies that control the biggest Brazilian universities and funding agencies.” 

Some clarification is needed here. CAPES is the main public funding agency in Brazil and it is noticeable by the text above that it has adopted the same kind of criteria that is becoming increasingly common in Britain. It goes on.

“USP [University of São Paulo] identified itself with this project and became one of its leading engines in Brazil. The length of the graduate courses was drastically reduced, the publications became the primary objective of research, the undergraduate studies and the teaching were downgraded to the status of lesser activities.  (…) The academic staff began to be sorted as ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’, as if the university was simply a branch of industry.”

“The public university, capable of freely producing knowledge without the chains imposed by private interests, is a strategic asset to a country that intends to be democratic, sovereign and socially fair. If we want to keep alive the hope that ‘university’ rhymes with ‘freedom’, ‘diversity’ and ‘quality’, we need to say ‘no’. Out and loud. The academics can make the University of São Paulo climb up in the combativeness rank. That might not bring individual rewards, but surely it will raise the spirits at every new academic year.”

The excerpts I have translated into English were published by the ADUSP on the 18th of February of 2013 under the title “We need to say no”. The original text, in Portuguese, is here for those who are interested.

The changes reshaping higher education in the UK are global in their nature. We need to cross the geographic boundaries to reach out to our colleagues in other countries. We need to create a network of awareness and to help each other to avoid the loss of our cultural heritage for the next generations. I have already started to talk to my contacts in Brazil and I would urge that anyone with international connections do the same.

Roberto Alamino runs the website, Science Legacy.


Whither blue skies research in UK universities?

by Dave Fernig (University of Liverpool)

The triennial review of the UK research councils has resulted in an excellent and challenging response, submitted by the Council for the Defence of British Universities (download document here). One important aspect of this document is that it highlights the shift in the tension between funding of near-term and blue skies research, exemplified by the growth of the non-science and non-budget sections of research proposals over the last decade or so. There has been a steady push from government over the past decades for “blue skies research” to “pay its way” and for the marketing of the innovation resulting from research. Research councils have responded by shifting resource to near-term research. An interesting counterpoint is from government itself, in the form of a nice quote from David Willetts on page 4 of the document “Governments picking winners can easily become losers picking government programmes”…

read the rest of this post on Dave’s blog, Ferniglab.