With ‘Friends’ like these…


‘Let’s take a pop at universities’ is now a favourite sport for politicians and others. Stimulated by Lord Adonis in a blast of tweets, many issues have been entwined in this – grade inflation, vice chancellors pay, tuition fees and student debt, value for money to both student and tax-payer, quality (or lack of it), lack of diversity in Oxbridge admissions, cartels of vice chancellors, etc etc…

Things took a Halloween-ish twist in the last week of October with THAT letter, from MP and Conservative whip Chris Heaton Harris to vice chancellors, asking for names of those who taught students about Brexit and for sight of course material. The next day the Daily Mail went for the jugular with headlines about ‘Remainer’ universities being responsible for teaching students to be anti-Brexit, and inside a feature on the ‘lefties’ leading Oxbridge colleges. The DM quoted another MP, Andrew Rosindell, as saying ‘Universities must show they are unbiased and present a factual account of Brexit, not ‘remoaning drivel’. I wonder – does the DM know what ‘unbiased’ means? I doubt the Telegraph knows either having published this from Nigel Farage. In the meantime, how very ironic that the DEXEU commissioned 58 impact assessments (higher ed. being 28) but refuses to publish any of them.

There’s not been much by way of a flow of strong counter statements from the Universities Minister or Ministerial colleagues, from HEFCE, or the CEO/Chair of the new Office for Students. Although, in the same week there was a different push from Jo Johnson. This one helpfully announcing the clampdown on HEIs which do not uphold ‘freedom of speech’ on campus (at the same time the OfS must ensure they comply with Prevent).

To me the negativity has been depressing. I’m not saying there is nothing to some if not the majority of the points being raised. But the weekly if not more frequent battering, on all sorts of fronts and from different politicians and commentators, has made me wonder why people of influence seem to want to destroy one of the few world leading sectors the UK still possesses.

In response to Mr HH’s letter and the Mail outpouring, I liked the positives from Alistair Jarvis, CEO at Universities UK and Dame Janet Beer, UUK President, who gave a good reply to the letter. These can lay claim to be the ‘one voice’ representing the sector leaders. It’s also true that some who put their individual heads above the parapet on some of the other issues had a volley of arrows directed at them. So I do understand what I feel has been rather a heads down approach from sector leaders. Mostly it’s been the sort of HE colleagues the DM wants to put on its blacklist who have been more forthcoming in responses, (good for them).This piece in The Conversation had me nodding along.

Welcome support for the HE sector has surfaced in other places, for example, in The Spectator, and the London Evening Standard carried a few paragraphs of support (‘Leave our Universities alone’) in its editorial comments. I just wish there had been more like this.

I worry that, if important influencers continue to give the sector a constant kicking, how soon will it be before employers, parents, sponsors whether from here or overseas do likewise? University was a life changer for me – as it has been for countless others. All the evidence shows how valuable universities are to the economy and wider society and culture. UK higher education is recognised as being world leading. The uniquely diverse cluster we have in London befits a true world city, and is a national and regional asset.

These are not wish-statements but facts. At London Higher my colleagues and I will do what we can to help this remain the case. However it doesn’t seem a priority for Government, (nor, dare I say, is it likely to be for OfS either).I believe the sector in London and the UK will survive the challenges – and that universities will still be around in a hundred years’ time as they were a hundred years ago. But as competitors in other countries rub their hands in glee at what is going on, there’s no guarantees our world leading status will be retained.

Meanwhile, let’s hope MPs and others who seem to want to see universities diminish, (close?) will bear in mind that the local communities and economies will be affected as much if not more senior management and ‘leftie’ academics. Be careful what you wish (or appear to wish for).

To end a lighter note, like anyone else I need a bit of humour amongst the daily grind – so I did chuckle at this.