Universities ‘R’ Us

Guest blog by G. R. Evans

If you are a higher education provider, HEFCE’s Blog brings you ‘three ways to reach out with good advice’ on offer from the Higher Education Outreach Network (HEON).  The four providers in the Network have designed ‘Quick Guides’ to make the key information accessible to would-be students at school and mature students who want to understand the basics of ‘what is a university?’ As a ‘widening access’ initiative this is clear, friendly and well-designed. But does it really answer the question it poses? It offers ‘facts about each campus and its facilities, extracurricular activities and a student profile.’

Present marketing information concentrates mainly on such features, as expected to enhance the student experience.  But aren’t these just the externals?  Where and what is the inwardness of a university? What is it in itself?  It is more than or different from an ‘institution’?

Jo Johnson had an answer to that on 13 October during the  Committee stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill deliberations:

‘a university is also expected to be an institution that brings together a body of scholars to form a cohesive and self-critical academic community.’

He had not made that up on the hoof. He had taken it from the current Guidance for applicants (in England) seeking degree-awarding powers which was published in September 2015.

BIS had not made it up either. It had taken it from a Written Answer in the House of Commons in 1991. It includes the reference in the Guidance  as an ‘overarching requirement’ that:

 ‘an institution needs to be a self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to quality assurance supported by effective quality and enhancement systems’ as set out in the House of Commons Official Report vol 201 Written Answers col 31 (16 December 1991).

‘Traditionally’ the university degree had been:

 ‘an acknowledgement, by the self-governing community of scholars which constituted the university in its wider sense, of academic attainment such as to warrant full membership of the community’ Lindop Report of 1985 (2.5),

which also won a place in Hansard in 1986:

Traditionally the university degree was an acknowledgement, by the self-governing community of scholars which constituted the university in its wider sense, of academic attainment such as to warrant full membership of the community.

This seems quite a remarkable survival of a fundamental principle in the tumultuous seas of higher education policy in the last 30 years. The most remarkable thing of all perhaps is the consistent claim that a university  is not just an institution which employs lecturers. It ‘is’ this self-governing community of scholars. They are what makes it a university.

In the 1980s the norm was for academics in universities to hold teaching-and-research contracts until retirement age and they did indeed naturally form communities of scholars, maintaining standards and checking up on one another.  The pattern of employment in higher education has changed in recent years. Short-term, hourly-paid and zero hours contracts are common. University management has expanded out of all recognition and no longer sees itself as a ‘civil service’ to the academic community, but as directing its work. A recent article on setting up an international campus in Times Higher Education suggested that:

Decisions on the mix of international and national staff and faculty will depend on the business model, the marketing strategy and the local regulatory environment.

‘Flying faculty’ were regarded as a useful solution to the problem of finding academics to take on such ‘international assignments’.  Not much of a settled, ‘cohesive’ academic community is envisaged.

But isn’t the problem much closer to home? In a higher education ‘sector’ so vastly expanded and intended to grow bigger still as alternative providers pile in, providing higher education to half the population, are there really going to be enough academics who are available properly equipped to teach them? And how can it continue to be the case that a university not only employs real scholars but ‘is’ the community of those scholars, working together over time so as to become a truly self-critical academic community? Isn’t this where protection of quality and standards really needs to be addressed?