A case for the defence

The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) was established at Oxford in 2012 by Sir Keith Thomas. He worked tirelessly to recruit famous names from culture and science, law and the media, as well as academe, and set up an organisational infrastructure in double quick time. Government was instituting radical plans for HE which did not look right, on which they had not consulted, and HE needed to do something in response. Oxford led for the sector and spoke for the country. Sir Keith’s plans included an executive committee which thought through policies to argue that higher education was more than a commodity or ‘private good’. The EC was overseen by Trustees and the CDBU registered as a not-for-profit company (our application for charitable status was rejected on the grounds that we were a lobbying organisation). Books and articles by Stefan Collini (in real life a scholar of English Literature) were essential reading at this time. Guest speakers at annual general meetings, held first at the British Academy, then for two years at the Athenaeum, inspired attendees, who came in their scores. Yet encouraging though it was to glimpse famous faces at these events, nothing much actually changed. I joined because of an original commitment to defend the SIVS (strategically important vulnerable subjects), which spoke to me as a scholar in German Studies emerging from a ‘redundancy pool’. Shortly afterwards I was asked to represent Wales and I could not say no to that.

Sir Keith’s initiative was in response to the third round of university fees brought in by the Coalition Government led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The fees represented an intensification of the programme of marketisation which had been gathering pace since the 1990s. Marketisation means that university degrees are traded as products which bring financial benefits to those who hold them in the form of the higher salaries they may command after graduation because they hold a degree. In the HE market universities are providers competing with one another for customers who consult league tables before deciding which product to buy, which in turn may vary in price according to their value. The law of markets dictates that there must be new entrants to disrupt tired practices and push no longer competitive providers out of business, thus driving innovation and improving efficiency. The economy benefits because competition raises the quality of the universities’ products which are purchased by businesses when they employ graduates. That is the theory. Architects of the scheme, such as David Willetts who spoke at a CDBU symposium in July 2023, regret allowing providers to charge the same fee, which he had not foreseen would happen. According to the law of markets products are priced according to their value (in this case the salary you earn after graduation), but by all demanding £9000 British universities defied that law and thus in a way bucked the market. However, the market was strengthened in 2015 when government removed student number controls. As headteachers are judged by how many pupils they can send to Russell Group universities, this move allowed the Russell Group to expand but has led to a reduction in the offer elsewhere. This is hitting the Humanities hard, which as a group of subjects were derided by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as ‘low value’ in the summer of 2023.

The Cameron-Clegg fees were not mentioned in either party’s manifesto at the election in 2010, with the Lib Dems even pledging to oppose any increase. The first wave of fees, just £1000 per year and paid upfront, were brought in by Tony Blair in 1999 following recommendations made by the Dearing Report commissioned by the previous Conservative administration. These fees were not trailed in a manifesto either but supported by both main parties. Nor was the second wave, the so-called ‘top-up fees’ which trebled the rate to £3000 at the beginning of Labour’s second term. 

The Cameron-Clegg fees represented a quick fix for universities which in 2012 suddenly found they had the resources they needed to teach and research. As the fees were repayable as loans they did not show up in public borrowing, thus passing the test of austerity economics. But they were controversial from the start and sparked levels of civil unrest by students not seen since the anti-Poll Tax riots a generation earlier. Their unpopularity with the electorate has surely been the prime reason they have increased only once in England. As a result, more than ten years later and in an era of relatively high inflation, universities now face another crisis of financing. The market is failing, but in a market, it is producers who set the prices, not the government.

There are other reasons that university financing has not been addressed and they are probably intertwined. It is the Conservative view that mind-sets denoted as ‘woke’ and associated with equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) originated in universities. As ‘wokery’ is de facto bad, universities must take the blame for commencing a ‘culture war’ with the rest of society. Since the terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens by Hamas on 7 October 2023 and Israel’s military response in Gaza, Conservative politicians have sought to exploit upset on campus by characterising universities as places of antisemitism. In December they were energised by the Congressional hearings in the US which led to the resignations of two prominent university leaders, who apparently failed to distance themselves sufficiently from contentious definitions of campus hate speech. We commissioned a blog by David Feldman, Director of the Birkbeck Institute of the Study of Antisemitism, who drew nuanced distinctions to assist in the adjudication of cases. Promoting academic values surely entails drawing on research expertise to make difficult judgements.

Culture-war tactics have not recently born much fruit for UK politicians. Research for the CDBU by Leo McCann from York University suggests that most students see the free speech on campus controversy to be ‘deliberately overblown by right-wing commentators’. But that controversy came after the big fees hike and is linked with wider politics. What was the EU referendum in 2016 except a vote against higher education, with all our experts, cross-border networks and international collaborators? 

Has the CDBU achieved what it set out to do? At the elections of 2017 and 2019, the main party of opposition was committed to abolishing fees altogether across the UK (they were never introduced at all in Scotland for Scottish students). The 2019 election was not only about membership of the EU or the terms of British exit from it. It was also about the financing of HE. With the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, some founders concluded that the CDBU had failed by this point, but a majority on the Executive Committee determined to continue. The question of financing remains key and we do not have an answer.

What is the CDBU defending? Our aims say that it is ‘the autonomy of institutions of higher education against interference by government or other external bodies’. We also promise to ‘stem the rising tide of managerialism in universities and restore the role of academic values in university governance’. Academic freedom has been a recent preoccupation, prompted by the Kathleen Stock case at the University of Sussex which has been followed by prominent cases at other institutions, including recently Bristol and the Open University. Dr Kelli Rudolph (Kent) was lead author of a position paper and model ordinance, which you can read here. A pre-Socratic philosopher Dr Rudolph has adapted her research training to become an expert in the contemporary field of where academics’ responsibilities begin and end on campus and in wider society.

The CDBU has recently deployed some reserves (accumulated from members’ subscriptions) to fund research. Our view that we would empower academics by inviting them to choose their own themes caused confusion: usually it is the funder who decides the theme and the applicant who must find out what that funder ‘is looking for’. The project led by Professor Steve Jones (Manchester) on the secretive world of university governing bodies, ‘University governance: views from the inside’, provoked a rebuttal on WonkHE from the executive chair of the Committee of University Chairs John Rushforth within days of publication, surely proof that Steve’s findings hit a raw nerve. Many of our members are veterans of disputes with senates and similar bodies and have set up a new working party to devise a blueprint for what a university council should look like and what its role should be, vis-à-vis the senior leadership team, the wider institution and the communities which both serve.

The CDBU was born in Oxford and still needs input from Oxford academics. We fund research, curate a blog, organise symposia, and lobby on behalf of all British universities. If your views align with ours, consider joining. Better still share your expertise to argue for an alternative model for higher education in Britain.


A version of this article which reflects on the history of the CDBU and its current role appeared in the Oxford Magazine in mid-February (Fifth Week, Hilary Term). It was addressed primarily to academics at Oxford University to encourage them to engage with the CDBU once again. As the OM is not available online, we are reproducing it on the blog.

Words by Professor Julian Preece.