CDBU’s Howard Hotson talks about NUS student protests and the future of British universities on Newsnight

Last night Howard Hotson, Professor of Early Modern Intellectual History at St Anne’s College, Oxford and Chair of the Steering Committee of the CDBU, made a guest appearance on Newsnight to discuss the student protests and the future of higher education in the UK.

You can watch the full debate on BBC iPlayer here. Coverage of student protests starts at around 21:50. The debate starts at around 28:00. Following are some excerpts from Howard’s contributions to the programme.

“I don’t think anyone would deny that universities need to be re-evaluated incrementally on an ongoing basis. What I’m against is the fundamental and radical overhaul of one of the finest university systems in the world. It is one of the great national assets this country possesses. It is universally regarded around the world as one of the finest things that Britain does.”

“That [the university system] needs to be incrementally overhauled in new economic circumstances is undeniable but that is not what the government has set out to do. From the moment the Browne review was published, from the moment the white paper was published, the government has been talking about a fundamental, ‘radical shakeup of higher education’. It seems to many people inside universities that this is a very imprudent thing to do in an era where the university has never been more important for the knowledge economy and our competitive advantages have never been more difficult to obtain.”

“If you’re asking why every modern, Western, prosperous, democratic country for the last fifty years has supported a publicly subsidised university system, then there are all kinds of reasons for that. There’s the fact that a democratic polity depends upon having an educated electorate. There’s the fact that innovation is fundamentally necessary for the economy. There’s the fact that our cultural industries – a very vital part of our economy – depend very directly upon universities.”

“The really extraordinary thing is that this is the first time in modern history that a publicly funded university system has been eliminated with the stroke of a pen. In every other country a university system exists which is directly funded by taxpayers’ money. England has just done something which is radical and unprecedented, which is to remove – overnight, at the stroke of a pen – the direct funding of universities.”

“The ascendent economies of the world are not in Europe. If we want to be able to understand and engage with the ascendent economies of the world we certainly have to maintain our capacity to teach our young people non-European languages. If the market signals seem to be suggesting to students that this is not a profitable activity, then we’re dealing with market failure. The market signals are failing to convince students to study things that we desperately need.”

“Although engaging directly with the market is one of the very important things that universities do, the really fundamental, crucial, unique thing that universities do is to step way back from the short term cycle of journalism, the short term cycle of politics, the short term cycle of business, and engage people’s minds with the really big problems. We’re entering a century in which we are being faced by the most enormous problems and it is vitally important that universities not be swallowed up by the short termism of the political cycle on the one hand or the economic cycle on the other.”