The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) today submitted its response to the Green Paper “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice“.
We undertook this exercise in good faith and with good will since the focus of the Green Paper is on issues close to the heart of our founding values: how to assure the continued high quality of university education in the UK, and how to ensure wide and fair access to higher education. One of our aims as an organization is to provide expert, insider advice on, and responses to, government policy proposals that look to build on the already considerable achievements of UK higher education. What our close analysis of the Green Paper has revealed, regrettably, is that ‘consultation’ is a misnomer, since in its content and wording the document reveals time and again that the recommendations, far from being proposed as possibilities, are assumed by the authors of the Green Paper to be acceptable and to be awaiting implementation.
Equally, if not more worryingly, the quality of the arguments, of the evidence used, and of the presentation of the recommendations, is inadequate. One of the chief policies – the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – is put forward to address putative problems, without providing any evidence that these problems exist. The proposed TEF would be an expensive and bureaucratic system that would entail increasing complexity and disruption for years to come. The use of proxies, such as the NSS or graduate income, for teaching excellence is at odds with the ethos and values of education and scholarship. Both the content and the methodology behind the Green Paper come across as counter to the academic values that lie at the heart of any university worthy of the name. These values include reliance on reason, argument, and evidence; critical and creative thinking; rigorous analysis of data; and precise and meaningful communication. There is no recognition in the Green Paper that the primary purpose of universities is to foster these values; instead, universities are equated with businesses, value is defined purely in economic terms, and students and staff are set up in opposition as consumer and vendor respectively, working to serve conflicting interests (to pay as little as possible for the product purchased and to charge as much as the ‘customer’ will take). This is to misunderstand how universities work; to ignore the fact that unlike profit-driven organizations, the idea – and subsequent success – of our UK universities is rooted in staff and students working not towards a transaction but towards collaboration in the pursuit of understanding, knowledge, and truth.
Our academic values have made UK higher education a global leader and are fundamental to equipping generations of students with the critical abilities and independence of thought that contribute to society in myriad ways. The proposals of the Green Paper threaten the integrity of our higher-education system. The TEF will divert funds, time, energy, and expertise from the mainstays of academic life, namely, teaching and research.
The Green Paper affects only England, yet promises major changes to the higher-education landscape. As an organization that covers all British Universities, we are concerned at the growing divergence in regulation and funding between England and the rest of Great Britain. This has the potential to make English universities less attractive both to staff and students.
If the government chooses to implement recommendations based on such unsubstantiated premises and so unstable an evidential base, it will not build on the many strengths of UK universities, but will inflict irreversible damage on our successful university system and jeopardize the value of higher education for both the individual and for society as a whole. The financial value of our university system to the UK economy is dependent on maintaining our international reputation for quality: our positional advantage in the global higher-education market is our adherence to the highest academic standards. If academic judgment, integrity, and values are subordinated to an intellectually inadequate bureaucratic exercise then there will be an adverse impact on both reputation and financial benefit. Within such a system the academic community itself will become alienated.
We are aware that most academics working in English universities are unaware of the Green Paper and its contents. They have not been consulted about issues such as the need for and potential implementation of the TEF – even though this promises to have a major impact on their jobs and institutions. We believe that any new proposals should be evidence-based and arrived at after an appropriate period of consultation with experts, including those who conduct teaching and research in our universities. Please join us if you agree, and make your voice heard.
The full CDBU response to the Green Paper can be downloaded here.