An Interesting Discussion: Encouraging Responsible Universities

I spent the first half of the day attending an interesting discussion, hosted by the Social Market Foundation, an Westminster think-tank which is doing some interesting work on the transformation of the British Welfare State. This well-attended event, which was to be about Encouraging Responsible Universities, but somewhat ended up becoming a discussion on the University funding regime, drew participation from different sections of the British society, including Press, Businesses and various think-tanks and public intellectuals. In fact, there were people from only eleven universities, some of them on private capacities rather than as official representatives, which was rather interesting and was in fact pointed out in a question to the panel. However, the discussions were nonetheless worthwhile and threw some light on the current policy thinking on British Higher Education.

The two keynote speeches of the day were delivered by Shabana Mahmood, the shadow Minister for Universities and Sciences, and David Willets, the Minister himself. To be fair, Ms Mahmood has just taken over the portfolio, and seems to have spent more time on canvassing support for Independent Kashmir and criticizing the Indian rule there than looking at the issues surrounding the British universities. Besides, she had the unenviable task of defending Labour Party's stance on the University funding, which is conspicuous by the absence of any serious thought or substance. The best idea that the Labour leadership could come up with is to cap the university fees at £6000 instead of the current £9000, a policy pronounced without any serious intention of ever being implemented. Her speech, a pre-prepared one, was full of such fantastic notions and opportunistic soundbites, resting on some sort of anti-Americanism designed to undermine Dave Willets' current closeness with large American For-Profit providers. She avoided all real issues, and when raised, she 'took them away' rather than offering any substantive answers. Her speech may be explained away as a Blair-esque tactic of remaining non-committal to difficult policy questions till the party comes close to power, but it is easier to see the other way, that why the Tories are almost getting a free ride despite blundering on so many policy issues. It surely seems that Labour has lost the faith in themselves and have no clear answers anymore, and Ms Mahmood was clearly no match for Dave Willetts despite the widespread resentment about the Government's policy.

By contrast, Dave Willetts was clearly in command. He spoke without notes, responding to some tough criticisms from well-known experts such as LSE's Nicholar Barr. He was shouted down off stage in Cambridge on Tuesday, but was supremely confident on his grasp of the subject and even joked about the incident. He tore into the alternative plans and made the indefensible errors in policy, which the Government is now scrambling to cover, look like intentional design. He almost made the allegations of elitism, based on the Government's love for AABs, the high performing students mostly from wealthy families and private schools, appear baseless. He spoke about Choice as if this never existed, and made two offbeat examples, the Lancaster University's reopening of its Chemistry department and UCL's decision to open an East London campus, look like successful outcomes of government policy. It was a politician's spin as an art form, but the intellect of the person, his charm and wit, and his command of the subject in a magisterial display.

However, this political point-scoring and contrasts somewhat obscured the real debate of how to make universities responsible. That theme was well sustained in the opening session with Professor Malcolm Gillies, the transformational Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University, Liam Burns, the President of NUS, the impressive CEO of Ipsos MORI, Ben Page and Susan Anderson, Director of Public Services and Skills of the CBI. There were a number of interesting points were made by the panel. Professor Gillies, who, with a combination of long term strategic focus and Aussie grit, transformed one of London's worst run universities and made it look like a champion of sorts in recent months, made a number of insightful observations about how he is changing the university and the challenges that he faces. His much debated move to rationalize and focus the course portfolio was well explained, as well as his protection of academic services but the cut on administrative flab (something that every institution should possibly be looking at, including the private sector ones). He was on the money in pointing out where universities as autonomous organizations, as in Britain, present a problem, particularly in terms of creating a common currency, like course credits, or undertaking necessary transformation of course structure, like moving towards a more modular structure. Liam Burns, despite his compulsions to represent the student view, was also balanced and realistic, and while voicing the requirements of a better student experience - a policy-speak but a valid concern - he acknowledged the need to shift some of the financial burden to the students and away from the taxpayers. Ben Page's observation that people still go to the university for knowledge came as a revelation - it seems that this is still the top reason why people go to the university. Ms Anderson, who was awkwardly and rather unfairly taken to task by a forever combative David Sweeney, the Director of Research, Innovation and Skills at HEFCE, an open apologist for the Government policy, for commenting that some universities may go bust - which they indeed may - otherwise struck an optimistic tone about the state of the British universities in the middle of doom and gloom.

Indeed, there was another session on the funding system, which was dominated by the clarity of argument and cultivated expertise of Professor Barr, and the David Sweeney's on-your-face defense of the current policy (for which he escaped relatively unscathed, perhaps due to current lord-of-the-universe role of HEFCE), but I have heard these arguments before and written about them. Professor Barr is a great believer of Friedman's argument that Income Contingent Student Loans, without some sort of a social insurance, usually lead to under-utilization of opportunities, and this is what stands at the heart of his recommendations, with which, quite apparently, neither David Sweeney nor David Willetts agreed with.

Overall, this was a morning well spent for me, giving me some insights which I would want to put in use in the context of my own work.


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