Sir Keith Thomas and Lord Martin Rees Introduce CDBU in Today’s Times Higher Education

BY Philip Moriarty (University of Nottingham)

Today’s Times Higher Education leads with a cover story on the formation, motivations, and objectives of the CDBU. Two articles by Sir Keith Thomas and Lord Martin Rees  – founding members of the CDBU, and past presidents respectively of the British Academy and Royal Society – lay out, in a stirring call to arms, the impact of flawed higher education policies on teaching and research in British universities.

Sir Keith highlights the ‘gross distortion’ of the fundamental ethos of the university which has resulted from attempts to embed market forces in higher education. Not only are students now regarded as consumers whose motivation to learn is reduced to the enhancement of their long-term earning potential, but research is increasingly skewed towards near-market/near-term application, despite the funding and research councils’ repeated claims to the contrary.

The notion that the market can drive teaching standards upwards is similarly dismantled by Lord Rees, who pithily points out that ‘Choosing a university is a key life-choice − it isn’t like choosing a restaurant meal’. In any case, he adds, the current English higher education system is very far from being a free market, subject as it is to multiple forms of restrictive and artificial regulation and multiple levels of inefficient and largely pointless bureaucratic oversight.

Both essays also criticize the newly imposed impact ‘agenda’ which now plays such a central role in research funding allocation through the seven research councils – and, via the upcoming Research Excellence Framework, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

In a very supportive lead article, the Times Higher’s editor, John Gill, adds that ‘to focus solely on what a degree is worth in terms of pounds and pence is not only a mistake philosophically, it also leaves universities at the mercy of economic ebb and flow. If all look out only for number one, the danger is that the nature of higher education will be fundamentally damaged. ‘

The CDBU has been established to help fight this kind of commercialisation and instrumentalisation, and to revitalise the academic values which have made British universities amongst the very best in the world. Our universities are too important to be left to politicians, business people and indeed academics: they belong, as Sir Keith eloquently puts it, to ‘everyone who values the supremely human activities of teaching and learning, the pursuit of knowledge and the life of the mind’.

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