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Response to Anthony Seldon’s call for reform to UUK

  • 25 March 2019
  • By Roger Brown

This is a guest blog kindly contributed by Roger Brown former Vice-Chancellor of Southampton Solent University. He was previously Chief Executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, Chief Executive of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, and Secretary of the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council.

As the only person, so far, who has been both an officer and a member of UniversitiesUK perhaps I may be allowed to express a few thoughts about Sir Anthony Seldon’s recent HEPI blog.

My first reaction is to wonder where he has been these past 30 years. Perhaps he has been too busy running schools and overseeing academies and writing political biographies to have noticed the fundamental changes in higher education since the mid-80s?

Sir Anthony is certainly correct about the need for UniversitiesUK to be streamlined and strengthened. Much of what he proposes was indeed put forward by the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics as part of the negotiations about the terms on which the Directors would become members of what was then known as the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals after the abolition of the binary line in 1992. As the (first and last) CDP CEO I put forward a paper proposing that a new Association of British Universities would have a federal structure with separate sub-groups for different kinds of institution, the various professional groups, and so on. This is how the US body works and my friend the late Tom Burgner, CVCP’s Secretary, went on a trip to Washington and came back very enthusiastic about it. However our negotiating position was not strong because everyone knew that the Poly Directors would join CVCP anyway and indeed one or two jumped the gun and the negotiations fizzled out.

Another of Sir Anthony’s suggestions is that UUK should have a strong professional leader. When CDP came to an end I worked for a mercifully short period as CVCP’s Head of Research and Strategy. I was chatting one day to an old Vice Chancellor. I asked him why CVCP had several times turned down the idea of having a proper Chief Executive. He replied that it was nothing against me, but he wasn’t Chief Executive in his own institution, so the last thing he wanted was to have a CEO over him. This explains much about the psychology of the Vice Chancellors and, I have to say, some of the subsequent appointments. For the same reasons, I doubt if the other Vice Chancellors would relish having a strong ‘SuperVC’ to lead them, and certainly too many of the people who have been Chairs/Presidents of UUK have been, to put it kindly, ‘placemen’ (the late Sir Gareth Roberts a notable exception).

But even if these and other changes had been made, or were to be introduced tomorrow, they would have little effect, and this is where I part company with Sir Anthony. Like much of the rest of what used to be called the public sector, the universities have been reduced to being supplicants for the crumbs that fall from the Government’s table. Every institution, every department and certainly every VC is competing furiously for every research grant, every student, every contract with industry, every award. We are all academic capitalists now, and with a vengeance, and there is no going back (and indeed the rumoured outcomes of the Augar report would make things even worse).

However, as a close observer of, and commentator on, Government policies towards the universities from my stint promoting partnerships between universities and business at the DTI between 1987 and 1990, through my time working for various national HE agencies and then as a Vice Chancellor, up to my final retirement as a Professor last year, I am not even sure if a principled, unanimous, stand against marketisation in the early 80s by the Vice Chancellors would have achieved anything. Even then, the divisions within the system were too great and of course Ministers and their civil servants were aware of this and played institutions off against one another, and continue to do so.

There is one other factor of which Sir Anthony fails to take account. At the same time as these Neoliberal policies of user pays, anyone can be a university, ludicrous performance exercises and the like have been applied to the sector, the nature of policy making itself has changed and become more ideological. Up to the mid-80s, and perhaps more recently in some areas, it was possible for a well-informed interest group – which is all UUK is – to make some impact on policy. But since the 80s, and especially in the last decade, it has all become a matter of ‘if you’re not for us, you’re against us’. The continuing treatment of overseas students in the immigration statistics is only one of many examples that could be quoted.

So whilst I wish Sir Anthony well in his efforts to promote the reform of UniversitiesUK I fear he may be better advised to direct his formidable energies elsewhere.

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