‘Our universities have become factories’

A coalition of leading academics and peers gathered last night to launch the Council for the Defence of British Universities. Writing in the Telegraph, founding committee member Gordon Campbell explains what is at stake..

For many years I have worked at one of the 40 or so universities that describe themselves as a top-20 university. And when I entered the profession, universities – though largely independent of government – were part of the education sector.

We are now, in the eyes of government, nationalised businesses that exist to serve the economy. The Universities Minister now reports to the Business Secretary, not his counterpart in the Department for Education.

In that time, life has changed utterly for academics and students alike. The value of teaching has been downgraded without mercy, because it attracts no differential funding. When I arrived at my university, we taught our undergraduates in groups of two; the numbers have gradually increased, and now we teach them in groups of 13. This is an efficiency gain.

But despite these larger classes, which are typical of the sector, standards have risen steadily: when I started we gave a first every other year, and now we give a substantial number of firsts every year. As at other universities, we are urged to give still more firsts in order to be competitive.

We also receive weekly injunctions to apply for grants that those of us in the humanities do not need – grants that will buy us out of teaching, which can be done by an increasingly casualised workforce. Our ability to procure grants is central to our survival as academics. In other words, the value of our research is assessed by the amount of taxpayers’ money it has cost.

So how has this happened? The inappropriate notion that we are businesses was first mooted in the Jarratt Report of 1985, in which we learned that our universities were enterprises analogous to factories and that academics were charged with ‘delivering’ education, and in that capacity subject to key performance indicators. Students were deemed to be the products of this manufacturing process, and these products were marketed to employers.

At a later stage, when fees were introduced, students ceased to be products and became customers. As enterprises, our universities were expected to compete against each other. They were also expected to be properly led, and so Vice-Chancellors and Principals acquired executive powers, senates and councils were purged of troublesome academics, and large numbers of managers were hired.

University councils were reformed to resemble boards of directors, mostly populated by people from a business background; they are people of good will who work pro bono, but apart from the chair and treasurer, the complexities of the modern university are beyond the understanding of most members, and they share a tendency to see universities as Mr Romney viewed the US – as a business in need of downsizing.

And the hand of government has become gradually heavier. Funding agencies, quality agencies and more recently the Office of Fair Access have been introduced to monitor all aspects of universities’ activities…

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