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If we value autonomy, we should be wary of inadvertently encouraging more state intervention

  • 15 October 2018
  • By Nick Hillman

I dropped by the Barbican at the weekend, for the Battle of Ideas. It was my third visit to the annual festival to take part in a stimulating event about higher education. This time, the topic was ‘Universities: Can’t get no satisfaction’.

In pointing out students’ high satisfaction ratings and emphasising the relative freedom enjoyed by academics, at least when compared to people in many other careers, I made myself so unpopular that one audience member stormed out, shouting and gesticulating as she went.

The list of complaints about the higher education sector from the academics and students on the panel and in the audience was very long indeed and included:

  • too many students
  • ‘corrupt’ senior managers
  • spending on ‘shiny new buildings’
  • low contact hours
  • low pay for academics
  • an explosion in administrators
  • too much teaching for exams rather than delivering education for its own sake

I disagree with many of these – for example, the idea we have too many students or that corruption is rife, and I think students generally benefit from good-quality facilities. But the number and strong feelings behind the complaints stood out.

Had a random backbench MP wandered in, they would have got the distinct impression that we were discussing a sector in crisis and in need of urgent state intervention – rather than one of the world’s best university systems.

Yet the other panellists and audience members who came up with the list of complaints would be even less happy with more state intervention. Some of their greatest anger was aimed at Whitehall initiatives, such as the REF, TEF and KEF.

Making strong criticisms of our own sector without proposing matching solutions is a risky business: if we give policymakers a warped or exaggerated impression of the challenges universities face, we may find institutions end up with less autonomy.

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