Getting off the back foot – and taking the offensive

Words by Peter Scott, CDBU Trustee, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education and former Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University. 

Universities are not popular – with politicians. They are very popular with the hundreds of thousands of applicants and their families, who now see ‘going to uni’ not just as an aspiration but also something that is close to a right. That popularity with applicants may explain their unpopularity with politicians.

The Government desperately wants to cut the cost of higher education, because student loans are playing havoc with the public finances (so much for shifting the burden away from taxpayers by charging high fees) as well as creating a mountain of graduate debt. So the Conservatives are bent on stoking largely bogus ‘woke wars’, essentially as a distraction from the real issues at play.

Labour, despite being the party of choice for many academics and students and holding a string of university seats, is strangely silent on higher education. Not so strangely the Liberal Democrats, having been eviscerated electorally by their U-turn of free higher education a decade ago, are also silent. All political parties are behaving as if public opinion was indifferent or hostile to universities, for which there isn’t a shred of evidence.

As a result the best universities can hope for is successful damage limitation as the Government very belatedly gets round to its response to the Augar committee set up by Theresa May in the  Conservatives’ panic about the supposed popularity of Jeremy Corbyn among students. The fear that the Government would follow Augar and cut the maximum fee from £9,250 to £7,500 may have abated. But there are still alarming rumours of a more modest cut to £8,500. Whatever the cut, there is little hope of direct public funding to fill the gap.

Other rumoured measures may be more palatable in conservative university circles. They might even overcome their distaste for the wholesale invasion of university autonomy if the Government sets minimum entry standards. They never liked expansion very much, let alone uncapped growth. Nor might they object to diverting ‘weaker’ students whose ‘investment’ in higher education (probably in a post-1992 university) will not pay off and who would be far better off in further education. They never liked the ending of the binary divide between universities and polytechnics much either. 

Their reaction may betray a wider malaise, which I have tried to explore in a recent book, Retreat or Resolution? – Tackling the Crisis of Mass Higher Education. On the right, higher education has never been popular because it was ‘too mass’. In reality, mass higher education has allowed what we now call our ‘best universities’ to thrive. But it is precisely that which has made those on the left also suspicious of mass expansion. They suspect its major achievement has been to create near-universal access for the middle classes while leaving working-class applicants not much better off. Once again, the reality is very different. Of course, many of our ‘best universities’ have student profiles inexcusably skewed to the most privileged social groups. But overall expansion has empowered key groups previously excluded – women and ethnic minorities as well as students from poorer backgrounds. 

In my book I try to understand that malaise by looking at the expansion of higher education since the 1960s against the wide background of what has happened to Britain (and many other developed countries) over the same six decades. A key problem is that the expansion of the universities was first conceived as postwar societies approached ‘peak’ equality, and in the wider context of the advancing welfare state and social optimism. But mass higher education has come of age at a time when inequalities of income, and life-chances, are as wide as they were before the First World War, and against a background of contested and often toxic politics and enveloping pessimism. 

Universities face a clear choice. They can retreat to an imagined golden time when there were many fewer students (and almost no pesky managers) and they were respected, well funded and largely left alone by politicians. Or they can advance into an age when almost everyone has access to a comprehensive – dare we call it, universal – system of tertiary education with the universities at their heart. 

On second thoughts I am not sure there is a realistic choice. The ambition to ‘go to uni’ is now so pervasive, and demand for places in colleges and universities so insistent, that retreat is no longer possible. In any case, continued growth and wider access would be to remain true to the famous Robbins principle, the nearest thing UK universities have to a founding constitution, and also to what Lord Robbins himself told me shortly before he died when I asked him why he, a rather traditional not-to-say conservative economist, had nevertheless supported university expansion when so many were crying ‘more means worse’. He replied that his LSE colleague R H Tawney has once remarked to him: ‘you can never overestimate how much America has been improved by the fact that so many of her people have had at least the smell of a higher education’. 

However, universities still have to confront this malaise of mass higher education. In my book I set out a three-part programme:

  • First, to put achieving fair access front-and-centre, and to give the lie to those (often over-entitled) ‘populists’ who insist higher education is part of a out-of-touch ‘cosmopolitan’ elite.
  • Second, to reform university government, to bestow both on (now sadly often alienated) university staff and local communities a stronger sense of ownership.
  • Third, to ensure that a university education is truly open in intellectual terms, not constrained by either disciplinary cabals or political correctors, and to reassert the place of the university in building a better democracy and a better society.

In short, I believe the best way to defend the universities, which after all is what CDBU is all about, is to stop being on the back foot all the time, parrying the latest blows aimed at them by politicians, and their agents (like the Office for Students) and, of course, the media or, worse still, trying to curry favour. Instead, they need to take the offensive, in what I like to think of as a radical leap forward.

You can buy Peter Scott’s book, Retreat or Resolution? Tackling the Crisis of Mass Higher Education, here.