We must protect our universities’ freedom

It is rare that governments get to do exactly what they want. Opposition parties, the judiciary and others have traditionally also wielded significant influence, tempering the more extreme ideas of those in power and highlighting the pitfalls of proposed policies.

This era of moderation is, however, coming to a close. Those who once held our governments to account are being systematically declawed.

Politicians who deviate from their party line are subjected to torrents of abuse and the threat of deselection. The House of Lords, with its essential powers of scrutiny, is ridiculed as stuffy and out of touch. And then there’s the Labour party, which is currently offering as much opposition to the Government as a hermit crab would to an Apache helicopter gunship.

The saving grace in all of this has been our universities and their academics, who have argued consistently on the side of reason and reasonableness.

But now our universities, too, are under threat.

It started with the gradual move – in which we* were, sadly, complicit – from government funding to student tuition fees, turning higher education from a public into a private good and unleashing market forces into a domain in which they do not belong.

But it did not stop there. The new sector regulator, the Office for Students, has lost the policy-setting powers of its predecessor. The Prime Minister has launched a review of higher education funding that has more ‘red lines’ than a London bus map. And Vice Chancellors, who are forced to bear the brunt of this onslaught, have been demonised by MPs and the media for their salaries and expenses.

Whether or not this represents a concerted effort by the Government to emasculate our universities, the effect is the same. And we risk losing some of the last sane voices in the debate of our lives.

We have long been the party of thinking people, of academics and of students. We messed that up with our ill-advised coalition capitulation on raising tuition fees. But it is not too late to make amends.

So what should we do?

Firstly, we must recognise that universities do more than simply educate the next generation of graduates. Judging them solely on how happy their current students are is imprudent and short-sighted.

Secondly, we need a clear higher education policy framework, rather than a market-dominated free-for-all. It’s a fine balance, though, as we also need to protect universities’ autonomy from excessive regulation and government meddling.

And finally, we need a stable funding regime that reflects the partnership that our universities represent between students, academics and society. Some kind of graduate tax combined with funding from general taxation would fit the bill, but I’m sure there are other answers, too.

Our universities play a vital role in maintaining the health of our democracy and of our society. We need to protect their freedom to perform it well. It’s not a simple task. And there are no easy answers. But we are up to the challenge.

This article was first published on Liberal Democrat Voice.

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