As the government pushes to marketise universities, it seems everyone's opinion is valued—except those with actual expertiseby / January 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
At one minute past midnight on New Year’s Day, the Guardian published a story listing the final six members of the Office for Students (OfS), the government’s new regulator for English universities.
Academics across Britain—party poppers still in hand, glass of fizz not yet flat, still hoarse from singing “Auld Lang Syne”—were brought down from their holiday spirit with a bump as they read that members would include a former executive of HSBC, a managing director of Boots, and the journalist Toby Young.
One student, from the University of Surrey, is included on the board, but there is no National Union of Students representation—a baffling exclusion from a body that is supposed to have student interests at heart.
The appointment of Young, whose West London Free School has recently appointed its fourth head teacher in six years, was greeted with particular dismay by academics, not only because of his lack of experience in higher education or academic research but also because of his apparent penchant for being deliberately and dully offensive.
Academics responded to his appointment by sharing examples of Young’s past hits: his railing against ‘ghastly inclusivity’ in education (at the expense of students with disabilities and special educational needs); his suggestion that BME students are underrepresented at Oxford not because of institutional racism but because they don’t apply; his repeated, boring attempts to reduce women in the public eye to their cleavage.
Young’s defence that he ‘worked’ at Harvard and Cambridge and is a visiting fellow at the University of Buckingham was not reassuring to academics, who pointed out that Young’s experience at Harvard and Cambridge was in junior posts during his uncompleted PhD, and that the University of Buckingham—as one of only five private universities in the UK—is not representative of British HE.
The consumer’s university
Whatever the make-up of its board, however, the OfS remains concerning to academics because of its very premise. In fact, Young’s appointment might be seen as indicative of government attitudes to HE in general.
The body is supposed to manage both the funding of higher education in England and also the general governance of universities, with a particular focus on student experience. This has recently been pushed into the public eye with the advent of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which awards gold, silver or bronze medals to universities, supposedly as a measure of the quality of their teaching.
The increasing focus on ‘value for money’ and students as consumers, rather than learners, has been met with dismay by many academics, who resent their (inaccurate) depiction as reluctant teachers and who are anxious about levels of student debt and increasing evidence of student hardship.
Stefan Collini has pointed to the risks of rebranding universities as ‘engines of growth’ rather than sites of learning. In universities, this marketisation is being experienced as a race to the bottom.
A middle-aged obsession
Even more worrying is the fact that OfS will also have the ability to fine, suspend or even deregister universities that fail to uphold ‘free speech’ on campus. The controversy around ‘free speech’ in higher education in Britain has reached fever pitch recently, with anxieties spread across a variety of topics.
There have been debates about the ‘no platforming’ of speakers with offensive views by student unions and student societies. The transnational campus-based Rhodes Must Fall campaign and wider conversations about the legacy of empire and the problems of racism in British education have been greeted with derision by many journalists, who increasingly invoke ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ in articles written on almost any aspect of universities or academia.
Much of this anxiety has been stoked by the Spiked rankings of free speech on campus—which are published every year to much media attention, despite their bizarre methodology and their stated hostility to policies against sexual harassment or bullying as infringements on free speech.
Jo Johnson’s speech on Boxing Day in which he proclaimed that the OfS would ensure that universities promote free speech and “open minds, not close them” represents an official embrace of this reactionary rhetoric.
There is something slightly odd about this middle-aged obsession with student politics, student unions, reading lists and classroom techniques. Journalists who have not set foot on a campus for twenty years (apart from, perhaps, for a luxurious dinner or two), and whose experience of universities is disproportionately skewed towards Oxford and Cambridge, have no qualms about pontificating about universities and their problems, while the voices of working academics are ignored.
Free speech—for who?
One of the real problems with this narrative is the nebulous concept of ‘free speech’ itself and the way that accusations of limiting free speech are often used to try to deflect reasoned critique.
For example, the almost 60 academics who signed an open letter critiquing Nigel Biggar’s ‘ethics of empire’ research project for being historically illiterate have themselves been accused of bullying and trying to shut down debate, rather than celebrated for exercising their own free speech in this regard.
Many academics have drawn attention to the fact that PREVENT itself limits free speech on campus, supposedly in the interests of limiting extremism. As the OfS’ remit covers both of these policies, it seems likely that at some point the body will find itself trying to intervene on both sides of this dispute simultaneously.
Student Unions are independent from universities, as part of their remit to represent the student body and as mandated by the 1994 Education Act; if the OfS starts to fine universities based on SU politics, their independence—and thus their freedom—might itself come under attack.
Sometimes, it feels as if everyone is welcome to weigh in on “free speech” on campus, except the people—academics and students—whose rights are at stake.
It might have been hoped that the OfS would intervene positively in this regard, giving more of a voice to those who have up-to-date experience in the industry and paying less attention to overblown concerns about undergraduate politics. If their latest appointments are anything to go by, however, we shouldn’t hold our breath.