What is to be done? This was the leading question aired at the inaugural meeting of the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) at the British Academy on the evening of Tuesday, 13 November. Such was the consensus amongst Founding Members of the need for action that few words were wasted lamenting the current state of UK university policy. The question was how best to respond.
The President of the British Academy, Professor Sir Adam Roberts, opened the proceedings by welcoming the establishment of the CDBU and emphasizing the importance of defending academic values to the mission of the Academy itself. Sir Keith Thomas, the prime mover of the organisation in its infancy, then recounted the origins of the project, its aims and objectives. Professor Gordon Campbell, a member of the Steering Committee, stepped back further, to review the way in which successive governments have sought, since the Jarratt Report of 1985, to transform universities into industrial assembly lines. The committee’s chair, Professor Howard Hotson, then suggested a variety of ways in which the CDBU could respond to this situation before Sir Keith opened discussion to the Founding Members.
The proposals offered were diverse.
Most speakers advocated direct and concrete policy interventions. A dozen specific aspects of current policy were identified as vulnerable to carefully formulated criticism backed by empirical evidence and feasible alternatives. These proposals, others suggested, could be combined with equally robust statements on basic academic values and institutional arrangements, to provide the archive of evidence and argument needed to inject more clarity into public debates on the future of the university. Some suggested that the defence of the university was a campaign that would be won or lost in the public arena. Others favoured more discreet means of influencing politicians and policy makers, either as the CDBU’s primary mode of engagement, or as a complementary one. Lord Morgan expressed the views of many in urging that the CDBU should emerge as a ‘champion of higher education as the most supreme of public goods’.
The presence of representatives of several learned societies, meeting within the British Academy, suggested one means of expanding membership. The presence of representatives of the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) suggested the possibility of a broader coalition.
Mere days after the announcement of this new organisation, the CDBU is developing rapidly. Evolving from a small planning committee to an institution capable of helping to combat the threats to UK universities will require a great deal of thought and energy. New members, potential contributors, and onlookers can expect to see a rapid metamorphosis in coming weeks, as the CDBU takes on more fully developed form.