Wednesday 26 January 2011
Vol cxli No 15
A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. The Vice-Chancellor was presiding, with the Registrary, two Proctors, two Pro-Proctors, and a deputy Proctor, and one hundred and twenty-one other persons present.
The following topic of concern was discussed:
The University’s response to the proposed changes in higher education funding, in light of the more detailed proposals following the publication of the Browne Review (Reporter, 2010–11, pp. 317–18).
Professor M. J. Daunton:
Vice-Chancellor, following the meeting of the University Council on 6 December 2010, the Council agreed a statement on fees and funding which was placed on the University website. This statement reads as follows:
The University presented evidence to the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance (the Browne Review).
The University Council has considered the Report from the Browne Review as well as successive Government announcements about national HE funding, fees, and student support.
Furthermore, it agreed that it would set aside significant time at its scheduled meeting on 6 December to consider these matters in the context of available information. There are votes in Parliament on undergraduate fee levels on 9 December and more Government and HEFCE decisions are expected in the coming weeks.
It will not be possible for the Council responsibly to propose Cambridge arrangements for fees and student support until these decisions have been taken.
A Government White Paper on important aspects of the arrangements for higher education is expected in 2011 but some Cambridge decisions on fees, widening participation, and student support will need to be made well before this.
In the meantime, the Council considers that it should restate the important principles set out below, which are consistent with what Cambridge has already said in its submissions to the Browne Review:
•Cambridge values diversity amongst its student body and is committed to continuing its current needs-blind admission to its undergraduate courses in order that no suitably-qualified UK student is disadvantaged by financial circumstances from coming to Cambridge. It will also wish to maintain and develop its access arrangements.
•The University and the Colleges wish to continue to enhance the quality of education in collegiate Cambridge which is vitally important to the University.
•Cambridge’s sources of funding must enable us to sustain and enhance teaching across the broad and diverse range of disciplines in the arts, humanities, and the full spectrum of social, physical, biological, medical, and technological sciences, to which we are appropriately committed; there is a need for the funding gap for teaching to be significantly reduced, if not closed.
•There are strong arguments for a significant degree of public funding for higher education teaching and research, reflecting the public benefit which higher education delivers over and above the benefit to individual recipients of a university education.
•The cost of undergraduate education should continue to be borne
• by the Government in the form of a subject-weighted grant per student;
• by students and their families in the form of an annual tuition fee;
• by the University in the form of bursaries to individuals and support for delivery of courses from endowment or other income.
•Excellent educational provision must be delivered effectively and efficiently through both College and University teaching.
•Changes to the national funding system and to institutional arrangements must not reduce the proper autonomy of the University, and ideally should increase it; regulation should be proportionate and not increased.
The Council, through a broadly constituted group, including College and student members, is considering the most appropriate fee, bursary, and access arrangements for the University as national changes are determined, including also the collegiate University’s extensive programme of activities to maintain and develop access (much of which is not publicly financed).
The Council expects to make further announcements in 2011.
Professor P. L. de Bolla:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I am one of two authors of a petition that was signed by one hundred and sixty-nine other members of the Regent House requesting this meeting and would like to introduce today’s Discussion with some brief remarks about why I proposed this topic of concern. I want to make it clear, however, that I speak here today on my own behalf and do not represent any group or association. Let me begin by thanking the Registrary for scheduling this Discussion so promptly.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, like many citizens I am deeply concerned by the current government’s actions in relation to the funding of public services – among which I include higher education – and in particular by the new arrangements recently agreed by vote in the House of Commons for the funding of university degrees. There are a number of aspects to this legislation that concern me as a citizen – such as the increase in debt burden that will fall on future students in higher education, or the impact this increased burden will have on the demographic within our university system – but it is not these concerns that I wish to place before you today. It is, rather, my concern as a member of the Regent House that prompted me to initiate this Discussion.
It is my belief that at the present time the idea of the university is under severe pressure. Its aims and objectives, relation to the society within which it functions, and its modes of engagement with that society, are all being subject to forces that are very likely to bring about at the very least a fundamental reorientation of the HE sector. Indeed that reorientation may be accompanied by a reconceptualization of the university. These forces, however, are not being aimed by educational theorists or philosophers of knowledge; they are being deployed by public servants whose primary concern is to be seen to be imposing draconian cuts in public expenditure.
In the face of this onslaught, the University would in my view be well advised to do something it has yet to do, that is, marshal all its various resources: intellectual, human, political, and economic, in order to state publicly, with clarity and conceptual rigour, the central tenets of the idea of the university, which, I believe, we all subscribe to. It is, perhaps, shocking that such a statement needs to be made, but I believe it is urgently required in order to counter a notion that increasingly figures in public discourse, namely, that universities are, or should become, commercial enterprises.
Of course, Mr Vice-Chancellor, I recognize that once we begin to articulate for ourselves and the public at large what those tenets are, it may turn out that in fact we do not all subscribe to a common set of principles or ideas. If that is so, it would be wise to learn where our differences reside. I understand this Discussion as one part of a process that will ascertain whether or not that is so. I very much hope that it will make open and transparent what I fear may be closed and opaque, namely, a common understanding of our best strategy for protecting and enhancing the excellence of our own University and of the UK HE sector in general.
It seems to me that the resources I mentioned a moment ago need to be directed at a shared target, while acknowledging that the university comprises a set of interlocking constituencies – academic, administrative, managerial, staff, and student. We are more likely, I believe, to achieve a common goal if those constituencies talk to each other. One of my concerns as a member of the Regent House is that I fear we are in danger of making such communication between constituencies less rather than more efficacious.
I am certain that other contributors to this Discussion will raise specific points, but I would like to conclude by setting out one of my own. Mr Vice-Chancellor, in early December when this process for a Discussion was initiated, the government had yet to vote on its proposals and the University Council had at that time not yet issued its statement of December the 8th. Now that the government’s proposals have been transformed into legislation, the detail of which, as I am sure I hardly need spell out, seems yet to be decided upon, my concern has only deepened. I am in particular disturbed by what I see as potentially an unprecedented level of interference in the core activities of this University that will result from the introduction of a mechanism for funding teaching in higher education that is based on what is called ‘student choice’. As I read the statement issued by the Council on December the 8th, that concern is shared. I am, however, curious to know, and would like to specifically ask, if the Council has concrete proposals, or is currently working such proposals up, to present before the Regent House, which might ensure that the stated obligation for sources of funding to comply with the wholly desirable conditions outlined in bullet point three of that statement (may I remind you: ‘Cambridge’s sources of funding must enable us to sustain and enhance teaching across the broad and diverse range of disciplines in the arts, humanities, and the full spectrum of social, physical, biological, medical, and technological sciences . . .’) in bullet point three, and in bullet point ten (I remind you: ‘Changes to the national funding system and to institutional arrangements must not reduce the proper autonomy of the University . . .’) – I would like to know how the University proposes to ensure that those conditions are met. To put it succinctly, what I would like to know is how the residual optative sense of ‘must’ in these admirable safeguards is to be turned into real outcomes.
For my own part, I find it difficult to see how the University will arrange for this to transpire under the rubric of a market – albeit a rigged market – whose primary lever in respect to the allocation of funds for teaching is ‘student choice’. The reason why is the following. If consumers in this marketplace act rationally, according to the conceptualization of the benefit of university education that sits at the heart of the Browne report, that is, in maximizing lifetime earnings, it is certainly possible, if not likely, that the selection of courses for study will narrow to those that are perceived – rightly or wrongly – as most likely to enable such consumers to realize their desired outcome (that is, high lifetime earnings).
The diversity the University rightly wishes to protect if not enhance will therefore require very substantial income streams from sources other than what we may learn to refer to as our student shareholders. But let us try a modest experiment. What if the demand for, say, philosophy, theology, or even veterinary science became so low that the number of student enrolments was substantially below the staffing level of the particular Department or Faculty. Would the University continue to fund those posts? And, to stretch this scenario only a fraction, what if there was no demand at all, say, for Sanskrit? Would the University continue to provide the world-class teaching it currently provides in this area?
The point I hope is clear: ‘student choice’ if it entails what the minister for higher education refers to as ‘the money following the student’ will be likely to create many and varied distortions in the provision of teaching throughout the higher education sector. I realize that what I have just referred to as a distortion others may prefer to call a ‘correction’ in the market, but such a retort would underline the point I am seeking to make: the inappropriate introduction of so-called market forces applied through the lever of ‘student choice’ as a means for determining what is taught within the HE sector.
In its second submission to the Browne Review, the University expresses approval for the establishment of a ‘diverse system of HE in the UK’. I wonder, however, if this is what it had in mind. But most of all, Mr Vice-Chancellor, I see this new set of arrangements for channelling funds into the HE sector as an unprecedented attack on the autonomy of the University, which, in a democratic society, must exercise its freedom and judgement in determining what is worth teaching.
Dr L. King:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I base my comments on a close reading of the Browne Review and the Second Submission by Cambridge University in response to the Review, and the Vice-Chancellor’s New Year message.
First, I would like to ask the Council for information about the formulation of the University’s response as well as any future responses to Government proposals and policy changes. As the Vice-Chancellor pointed out in his New Year’s message, we are dealing with ‘the most fundamental changes for a generation’. Are the deliberations open to Regents? If not, why not? While I found some merit in many of the points of the response, I do not feel like it represents my views at all. Furthermore, there is reference to research, without citations or detail in the Second Submission. For example, on page 8, it states: ‘Our research indicates that rates below those ordinarily charged by the market would be available for such loans depending on assessment of the covenant of the particular university and the implied covenant of its graduates in employment.’ Or, again, on page 9: ‘We have examined in some detail the possible operations of a bank loan based on the principles set out here and have concluded that it might meet these tests’. This is a rather important point as the University’s response proposes a bank loan alternative to the Browne Review. But there is no citation or description of the analysis. Who is the ‘we’ the University’s response speaks of, and what analysis was performed? How can this analysis be verified? I ask the Council, should not the Regents of the University be invited to take place in these discussions and be able to scrutinize the logic and research on which the University is making its response?
Second, is it appropriate for the University to be so passive and merely reactive in the face of something like the Browne Review? While the University has to be prepared to operate in the new environment, could we not also exercise some intellectual and moral leadership in shaping this environment? We are the top-ranked university in the country, so of course we can merely and opportunistically take advantage of marketization and further privatization, but do we not have an obligation to exercise leadership in reshaping the nation’s higher education system?
Would it not be appropriate for the University’s response to the Browne Review to strongly and directly criticize some of the Review’s many shortcomings? I will just mention a few of them.
First, and perhaps most striking about the Review, is the impoverished position it takes that higher education is valuable only because it adds to individual income, societal wealth, and trains healthcare workers? Should the University not object to this overly narrow conceptualization of the role of the University? The Review was written predominantly by corporate consultants and executives, and its views on the university very much reflect a business-based orientation. Indeed, the fact that one of the authors is currently the head of the McKinsey global education division seems like a clear conflict of interest by medical standards. It would be like one of the top advisers of the World Health Organization being a senior executive at Pepsi or Pfizer.
Why should the University accept the Review’s demotion in its historic role and its mission – to be just merely a money-making venture competing for students/consumers so that we can continue to grow, perhaps by ‘mergers and take-overs’?
Third, the University’s response seems to agree with the Browne Review about the efficiency benefits following from a price-driven market for education. But surely the University cannot accept the Browne Review’s claims for the functioning of this market. Whenever the Review invokes student choice it reads like a text-book competitive market with perfect information. But there is not a scrap of evidence provided in the Review that this educational market they hope to create can actually operate in this idealized way. This is even stranger as the Review repeats several times that there is no way the government can ever robustly measure the quality of teaching, but then goes on to suggest that the students will be able to do just that, aided by new information that the government will obtain from the universities for them. Should the University accept such flawed logic as the basis for redesigning the national education system? Should we risk transforming the very structure of the university system for this unproven and dubious goal of market-driven efficiency-enhancing market competition?
Not all markets are the same, and the very least the government seeking to implement the Browne Review should be asked to do is present empirical evidence that this model of price-driven efficiency-enhancing markets will really deliver any benefits to the HE sector. It is not as if such evidence is unobtainable, in that aspects of the current US higher education system appeared to be the model for which much of the Browne Review’s thinking is based. A balanced appreciation of its strengths and weaknesses and of the realism and challenges involved in emulating its key features in the British context should surely be part of an informed and critical response to the Browne Review, especially as it neglected to offer such an empirical assessment itself. This absence of evaluation of relevant evidence itself represents the kind of departure from proper intellectual standards which would guarantee a ‘fail’, or at best a referral, at this University.
Fourth, I would now like to draw attention to the University’s proposed amendments to the Browne plan – namely that the current block grants be maintained, but that it should be supplemented by whatever ‘secondary’ fees universities are able to charge. I would like to know how the University, under such a plan, would guarantee ‘widening participation rates’ across Cambridge and in the higher education sector overall. Or, in other words, how it proposes to achieve, as the Response puts it, a system in which ‘participation based on the absence of financial barriers to access, and affordability over the long term are foundational principles.’
If we really envision raising fees to what the ‘market’ can bear, then we can realistically expect to be able to raise fees to the level of Harvard or Yale. Under such a scenario, will we really be able to make admissions ‘need blind’? Only Harvard in the entire well-endowed US higher education system can actually afford to do that, and to transform Cambridge into Harvard, in this respect, would mean increasing our endowment by an order of magnitude in the context of a very different national fiscal and cultural regime of philanthropic giving. Is an attempted emulation of Harvard, with very little practical prospect of financial success, really what we as a University want to do? Is this a realistic strategy? Has the University really thought about how to cover costs for poor students to ensure that they are not even more deterred than at present from applying in the first place? The Browne Review, among a variety of risks that it fails to point out, does not consider the possibility that a huge increase in fees and thus debt will have a differentially deterrent effect on poor students applying for the most selective institutions. The Browne Review relies on its rational consumers, aided by easily solicited information, to calculate the correct returns on these debts which presumably would be positive. But is this realistic? Should the University follow the Review’s lead on this? Might not poorer students be disinclined to accept what might appear, to them, as massive debts for their families and themselves?
And can the University so confidently say that further marketization and privatization is really the best way forward for higher education in the country and not just at Cambridge? Has the University assessed the comparative data on the economic and social efficiency of public versus private spending? Since the Browne Review has not, it is all the more important that the University in its response should point to the crucial need for such empirical evaluation. Has the University considered how marketized systems function not just at the top at a place like Yale, but throughout the middle and the lower order institutions in a privatized system? In a thoroughly marketized system, the principle of ‘caveat emptor’ has meant that some institutions border on being gigantic scams, as some critics describe the University of Phoenix. They can produce poorly educated and compensated graduates with devastating debt burdens. Even at the top, US universities have a very hard time ensuring diversity, even at a place like Yale with its billions.
Both the Browne Review and the University’s Second Submission point to the US system as one to be emulated, but there is no information presented in either document to provide any confidence that they have fully investigated the consequences of such a shift towards markets and bank-financed debt for the entire university sector in Britain, based on the comparative evidence. Can the University directly respond to this crucial point about its own assessment of the comparative evidence, giving full citations to the sources consulted, following normal standards of academic and professional best practice? Furthermore, while the US is the world leader in higher education by many standards, the University must remind itself of the historical fact that the greatness lies not in the reliance on the market mechanism proposed by the Browne Review, but by overall levels of investments in the world’s wealthiest economy throughout the twentieth century, allied to a unique fiscal system which has made philanthropic donation to the universities one of the most tax-efficient options for high-wealth individuals. And although much of this sector is indeed ‘private’ as the Response points out, much of it is also based on government-guaranteed loans.
Dr B. Burchell:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I would like to express my concerns for undergraduate access to Cambridge University that will arise out of the proposed changes to student fees.
I was Admissions Tutor at Magdalene College from 2003 to 2008, with special responsibility for outreach. I am proud, very proud, to have been one of the very many people, Fellows and students, paid and volunteers, who have brought about a gradual improvement in representation of talented students from backgrounds that have been under-represented at Cambridge, such as applicants from comprehensive schools, from the North of England, from working-class families, and so on.
Anyone involved in this process of improvements will be aware that these changes have been very slow and very costly, and have only come about because of the great efforts made by the University Admissions Office and many Colleges, sustained over decade after decade. I don’t think that anyone who has had first-hand experience of these changes believes that we have yet achieved our target of needs-blind admissions, but we are now nearer the target than we have been at any time in recent history.
Concerns about the cost of higher education are nothing new, and Cambridge has been in the fortunate position up until now to be able to offset the economic cost of higher education to disadvantaged students by, for instance, the Newton Trust bursary scheme.
As those working on outreach programmes with teachers, parents, and pupils will be very aware, the ‘rational’ or ‘objective’ economic arguments for the costs and benefits of higher education for a particular student are only one part of the picture. In many families, student debt is not seen as a rational component of investment in the future, but rather is overlaid with negative connotations of fear, doorstep debt collectors, and hardship. These debt-averse values are often shared equally by those people that the students would normally turn to for advice, such as parents, relatives, and teachers, making change fiendishly and frustratingly difficult.
For many years now, one of the most powerful outreach messages that we have been broadcasting, and something that comes as a great surprise to many access audiences I’ve addressed, is to state categorically and unreservedly that going to Cambridge is no more costly (and, in fact, in many ways cheaper) than the vast majority of other UK universities. If the changes proposed in the Browne Review are implemented as anticipated, this will no longer be the case.
Evidence already suggests that, since the 2004 reforms of tuition fees, many talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds choose to study at universities where they can reside at the family home or in areas with lower living and rental costs, or where there are good prospects of term-time employment.1 Together, these considerations put Cambridge at a distinct disadvantage. Add to this the greatly increased tuition fees, and the fact that Cambridge will likely be more expensive than many other universities, and it becomes clear why I am gravely concerned that these proposed changes will undo, in one fell swoop, all of those hard-fought-for improvements, achieved percentage point by percentage point, year on year, that Cambridge has seen in the representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Whether one is interested in outreach because one values equality of opportunity and a more open and fair society, or simply because one feels threatened by the proposed penalties to be placed against universities that perform poorly in access league tables, one is bound to conclude that the deterioration in Cambridge’s position is likely to be very severe. For this reason, the setting of Cambridge’s tuition fee level is going to be critical, and I would ask Council to ensure that any proposed rise in student fees charged by the University will be put before Regent House in the form of a Grace to ensure that the consultation process is as thorough and inclusive as possible.
I also ask Council, with urgency, to estimate the likely effect of these proposed changes on the proportion of disadvantaged groups applying to Cambridge, and consider the feasibility and the cost of measures that might be taken to minimize the damage of these proposals on Cambridge’s access policies, bearing in mind that this isn’t a simple case of economic costs, but a battle for the hearts and minds of people who still, all too often, perceive Cambridge as a distant, socially excluding, and prohibitively expensive institution.
A final thought: as perceptions have the habit of creating reality, we should also be fearful that this effect won’t only occur in the minds of others, and that Browne’s flawed review really will reverse Cambridge’s access trajectory, backwards towards a distant, socially excluding, and prohibitively expensive institution.
1Callender, C. and Jackson, J. (2005) ‘Does Fear of Debt Deter Students from Higher Education?’ Journal of Social Policy Vol 34/4, pp. 509–40.
Callender, C. and Jackson, J. (2008) ‘Does Fear of Debt Constrain Choice of University and subject of study?’ Studies in Higher Education Vol 33 No 4, pp. 405–29.
Mr O. J. Holland:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I would like to address my remarks to the possibility of achieving free higher education for all. Given the Browne Review’s recommendation with regard to tuition fees, I feel that it is important to maintain a sense of what is being lost here, to reject all thoughts of compromise, and to remind ourselves that there is a world elsewhere.
It seems to me that if we – by which I mean, those of us who hold out some measure of hope for the future – are to be anything other than the custodians of our own gradual effacement and defeat, such a defence of the possibility of free higher education is necessary. In a situation of crisis, it is incumbent upon us to continue to articulate with unswerving commitment a vision of what ought to be, rather than allowing the very terms of the debate to be dictated to us by the exigencies of an artificially constructed narrative of Necessity. If the mere mention of free education should seem to be somehow outlandish or infantile, given the present context of ‘austerity’, I would merely seek to remind us all that the Scots still have it, for now, and that the Welsh Assembly voted against the rise in tuition fees. This should, I hope, serve to illuminate the political character of the choices being made by the present government with its desperately weak mandate; nothing that they do is inevitable.
I would like to mention briefly, at this point, what was once referred to as the ‘magnitude of the task entailed in creating a community of learning, as opposed to a body of officials and academically qualified people’.1 It may well be that the task itself has now been forgotten, in some quarters, let alone its magnitude. The Browne Review – a cross-party enterprise, commissioned before the election of the current government – speaks to a certain narrowness of horizons on the part of those politicians who enter Parliament. Lord Browne makes clear a degree is conceived as a ‘good investment’, insofar as it is likely to increase one’s future earning potential, thereby threatening to subsume the entire university community in a morass of fungibility. In what capacity do you think a former chief executive of a large oil multi-national is qualified to undertake a review of higher education funding?
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I am not seeking to engage in a rear-guard action, nor an unjustifiable defence of outmoded privilege in a context of generalized austerity. I say this in an attempt to speak with some measure of fidelity to the second demand raised by those students who chose to occupy the University’s Senior Combination Room, although I make no claim to speak on behalf of, or as a representative of, those students.
There exists a carefully elaborated and detailed economic case which sets out to show that the government does not need to embark upon such a drastic programme of funding cuts across the public sector and that we do not, in fact, need to abase ourselves before the gaudy logic of opportunity cost – setting this degree against that hip replacement; her research fellowship against his disability living allowance.2 To remind ourselves, the students raised the following demand: ‘That the University use its influence to fight for free education for all.’ To my mind, this is not an infantile demand in defence of indolence and childish indiscipline; rather, it stakes out and holds in its heart the idea of a community of learning – which we can now safely say we have all experienced first-hand in the Senior Combination Room. To bring into being and nurture such a community requires hands and eyes which are more carefully vigilant than the cold, dead, invisible hand of the market. Mr Vice-Chancellor, what do you have to say to the substance of the students’ demand?
Needless to say, one does not hear this case being articulated in the mainstream press; neither is it ventured from the mouths of any of the representatives of the mainstream political parties. For that reason, it is all the more important that it is mentioned in this forum. The current government’s plans to re-make the state in the image of a broken mirror have an unavoidably ideological character. To submit ourselves to the narrative of Necessity and No-Alternative which is being hastily, shoddily, foisted upon us, would be an act of complicity with this intensely ideological project. In the present moment, it is simply not good enough to disclaim responsibility, to allude to a yet-to-be-published White Paper; there is no such thing as neutrality or impartiality in this situation. To claim access to such a mythical hinterland is to declare for austerity, for the state of emergency, for a perennial condition of government-as-crisis-management.
For each and every member of the University Council, there is a moment of subjective choice in these proceedings; what I am asking is that you throw caution to the wind and tell us what you are thinking – as individuals, as people with biographies.
To conclude, I would like to share with you an insight of one George Sampson. He said: ‘Deny to working-class children any common share in the immaterial, and presently they will grow into men who demand with menaces a communism of the material.’3 Now, I speak as someone who would quite happily welcome a communism of the material. And there is a world elsewhere.
1Walter Benjamin, ‘The Life of Students’ in Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913–1926, eds, Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass., 1996), p. 38.
3George Sampson quoted in Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford, 1983, repr. 2004), p. 21.
Mr M. V. Lucas-Smith:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, the topic of concern of today’s Discussion is ‘the University’s response to the proposed changes in higher education funding’. I am left wondering whether this is badly worded, since it would be hard to say that the University actually had a response, at least until the Council was forced to issue a statement on 8 December following the brave and peaceful actions of students occupying the Combination Room, which I commend.
And even then, it would be hard to discern any real opposition to the government’s proposals for massive cutbacks in central funding for teaching. Tucked away in the statement, which we’ve heard earlier, from the Council1 is the woolly statement that:
There are strong arguments for a significant degree of public funding for higher education teaching and research.
Hardly radical and stirring stuff. One would expect a radical cut in 80% to teaching budgets, in favour of a massive increase in fees to students, to be greeted with a suitably radical and robust response, perhaps even condemnation. Cambridge University, is, after all, in a more powerful position than most to make waves throughout the national media. Instead, we have a statement with phrases like ‘a significant degree of public funding’ that could frankly mean anything.
Cambridge University has responsibility, as the second speaker noted, to exercise leadership in this, and not respond passively as it has done. Perhaps even more worrying is the statement published in Varsity on 5 November that:
A spokesman from the University has said “Cambridge University needs to balance its books [and] that in this context the University welcomes the Government’s decision to increase the maximum annual tuition fee to £9,000.”
I don’t remember being asked as a member of the Regent House whether Cambridge University should welcome any such thing. Will we be? If not, on whose authority was the above statement made? And if this is merely a journalistic error, why has a retraction not been published?
Fees of £9,000 have enormous implications for access issues, as the third speaker mentioned. The University and the CUSU have both worked hard over the last decade to try to dispel the many myths about Cambridge University, not least the persistent media impression of it being more expensive and elitist (in the non-academic sense) than elsewhere. The University blindly accepting that it welcomes an increase in the cap to £9,000 does not do us any favours.
Perhaps before making such statements to the press, the anonymous spokesman, whoever he or she is, will take the time to talk to the Access Officer employed by the CUSU. He and student volunteers, as well as College members around the University, will tell you about the difficulties that the University already faces and the hard work that goes into this. My own College, King’s, employs a Schools Liaison Officer particularly linked with the North East, an area sadly not known for sending a high proportion of bright young people to Cambridge. Such work will undoubtedly be made harder as fees increase, and then thus the fear of debt increases.
Even if the University is not in a position to challenge high fees due to commands from on high, it should certainly be condemning the notion that only subjects deemed ‘strategically important’ (whatever that means), such as science, technology, and maths, will be spared from elimination of the teaching grant. Whatever happened to the notion of a university and that of education for its own sake?
Dr A. Stewart-Wallace:
Vice-Chancellor, my three questions to the Council concern the relation of the demands of businesses, as described in the Browne Review, to the purposes of this University, and consequently how the University intends to respond to them.
I start from the premise that the University needs to take a position on this prior to the production of the government’s White Paper, since the vote has unusually already passed.
A governing principle of the Browne Review is that a central purpose of universities is to provide UK businesses with the skills those businesses need. For example, page 23 of the Review reads as follows:
Analysis from the UKCES [the UK Commission for Employment and Skills] suggests that the higher education system does not produce the most effective mix of skills to meet business needs. 20% of businesses report having a skills gap of some kind in their existing workforce . . . The CBI [the Confederation of British Industry] found that 48% of employers were dissatisfied with the business awareness of the graduates they hired. (p. 23)
The conclusion immediately drawn in the review is as follows (and again here I quote): ‘This evidence suggests that there needs to be a closer fit between what is taught in higher education and the skills needed in the economy.’ (p. 23) The main question arising from this – and which I want to put to Council – is whether it is, as this argument assumes, a guiding purpose of this University to produce the skills required by the economy?
If it is, then the subject that I know best – philosophy (though I think the same applies for many others) – has little if no place in higher education, other than perhaps as an independent revenue stream for paying customers who want to spend some of their yet-to-be-earned wages on intellectual enrichment.
If so, then not only the vision of philosophy long inculcated by this University, but also that governing the history of philosophy, will have been a grand mistake. As the Council will know, the great philosophers of this University, for example Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein, made hardly any measurable impact on UK GDP, didn’t try to do so, and it is simply perverse to suppose that we can follow in their footsteps by aiming to. A more extreme example makes the case: William Wilberforce’s arguments against slavery, for which we have hitherto esteemed him, do not mitigate the fact that the abolition of slavery reduced British GDP at that time, and I assume was at that time opposed by many UK ‘businesses’. The rationale of the Browne Review points to the incredible conclusion that this might have counted against the place of Wilberforce’s argument within a university.
This is not to say that philosophy is demonstrably irrelevant to business. Indeed, as the above example shows, it can help us to see what businesses should do aside from following the profit motive, something that corporations are legally constituted not to see. On a more prosaic level, it helps us to tell good arguments from bad ones, a skill whose general utility is a case in point. But its purpose is not to promote this value. Any attempt to construe it in that way makes it unrecognizable from what its history has told us it is.
There is a related question as to the sources to which the Browne Review refers when citing the ‘demands of business’, which in turn are supposed to shape the policy of this University. The CBI, for example, currently have on their website a survey that any putative employer can anonymously fill out, demanding what they want from higher education. The link to it reads:
The CBI/EDI education and skills survey provides authoritative information on how businesses view education and skills issues. Please complete this questionnaire by 31 January to make your views heard to government and key opinion formers.
Questions on this survey include: ‘What do you believe are the key areas that need to be improved in higher education?’ and the rather question-begging: ‘What steps should the government take to encourage the study of STEM subjects?’ There is no parallel question: ‘What steps should the government take to encourage the study of non-STEM subjects?’
My second question to the Council, then, is whether the University will and should accede to having its policy directed by surveys of this sort, which merely express the preferences of anonymous businesses, who in turn are constrained to choose between an arbitrary and largely pre-determining series of multiple-choice questions.
The statistics given in the Browne Review are a fine example of how data this poor can be rendered doubly questionable by flimsy application. In the earlier mentioned quote from the Commission for Employment and Skills, we are told that ‘20% of businesses report having a skills gap of some kind in their existing workforce’. Is it to be assumed that this is too high a figure? Is a skills gap ‘of some kind’ the kind that it might be the purpose of higher education to fill? Is the existing workforce here cited entirely composed of graduates? If not, how are we supposed to know how many – if any – of those gappily skilled are graduates? These questions are systematically brushed aside whilst the review saunters lazily to its conclusion.
Such weak data, of such dubious provenance, so badly handled, is no platform for the fundamental reform of this University’s funding structure. If the Council does not think University policy should be directed in this way, what steps will it take to communicate this view to government?
Third: I now ask the Council to consider whether the Browne Review’s distribution of funding burdens is internally inconsistent. The leitmotif of the Review in this regard is well signalled in the following quote: ‘[I]t is reasonable to ask those who gain private benefits from higher education to help fund it directly rather than rely solely on public funds collected through taxation’ (p. 21). In other words, those who derive the most direct economic benefit should pay for it. But how can this be squared with the demand that students should pay for a system tailored to benefit employers? Sensible application of the competing logics of the report lead to the much more reasonable inference that businesses, not, say, philosophy departments, should pay for the training of their employees. This would return the ethereal demands of businesses to the domain of those businesses, from where arguably they should never have left. If Council agree, will they make this argument, or the best argument they see fit, to government as a matter of urgency?
In sum, I ask the Council to consider the proposition that the Review is founded on assumptions that make it conceptually impossible to mount an intelligible defence of the arts, humanities, and in some cases the social sciences and sciences – disciplines that the best traditions of this University have shaped and nurtured. For that reason alone the University should forcefully and publicly reject the Browne Review and its attendant policies. The government and the CBI know that there is no time to waste. Does this University?
The Revd J. Caddick:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, we come here today to discuss a topic of concern to the University, as the terminology is. And that it is a topic of concern is demonstrated by the very long list of signatures on the request for the Discussion today, and also by the several hundred people who turned up for the very dignified silent protest outside the University Church yesterday. And indeed, cuts in government funding for higher education should be of concern to the members of a community such as this one. The scale of the reduction in government support for higher education seems almost criminally irresponsible, threatening the ability of our world-class universities to compete and to continue to make the massive contribution that they do to wellbeing in this country and beyond.
We’ve already heard mention of the occupation of the University Combination Room before Christmas. The fourth demand of the protesters there was that the University declare that it will never privatize. This seems extremely short-sighted. In view of the drastic reduction in government support, I would like to ask why we are not actively considering going it alone, because I think there is at least a question to be asked about whether we would not be able to make a better job of being a university without the sort of interference from a short-sighted and penny-pinching government that other speakers have already referred to.
I have worked for more than 20 years as a clergyman in universities, first as a chaplain in London and more recently as a Dean and Chaplain here in Cambridge. And like most us, like most of the people who work here, I do that because I think universities are very special places. As the strapline for the 800th Campaign last year put it, Cambridge University is about ‘Transforming Tomorrow’, and I work here because I have a quite literally religious belief in the power of education and universities to transform lives.
Cambridge University’s commitment to excellence involves a commitment to making those transforming possibilities available to those who can best benefit from what it offers, and so discrimination on the basis of class or income is clearly incompatible with the core purposes of a university.
In recent decades, equality of access has been, if not ensured, then at least promoted by government funding. However, there is a danger that lurks within any such system because even in good times governments will always be tempted to pay what they can get away with, rather than what will realistically be required to do the job. And higher education doesn’t have the same political clout as schools or hospitals. But the situation we face now as a country is quite the opposite of good. Any government now in power would be strapped for cash, and in times like this, it is questionable whether a government could adequately fund universities even if they wanted to, and the government that we have clearly doesn’t. That is why the demands that university funding be maintained are, quite frankly, unrealistic. It clearly isn’t going to happen, and on that basis we have to start asking ourselves how we are going to take forward the business of being a university the best we can.
So how much is a Cambridge education worth? The Browne Review proposes that undergraduates pay fees of up to £9,000, and the best answer to any question about the worth of education is, of course, that it is priceless, and the crudity of the Browne Review’s approach of looking at it in terms of earning potential has already been commented on. But at £9,000 a year, a Cambridge degree is a bargain. It would still be a bargain even if we charged three times that, and if we were a private university, we could. Charging fees in the region of £27,000 would mean that those who could afford to pay a realistic price did so, and those who could not afford it would be adequately supported. Fees at that level would allow us to have a scholarship scheme much more generous than the government’s. To put it very crudely indeed, if even half the undergraduates paid the full £27,000, the other half could pay nothing at all, and the University would still have more money than would be generated by Browne’s £9,000. We could ensure support for those of middle-income backgrounds as well as those from the very poorest.
In short, the government is reneging on its responsibilities to support university education as a public good. There must come a time at which we begin actively to weigh up the possibilities of going private.
Professor S. J. Young:
Vice-Chancellor, I do not wish to comment on government policy regarding tuition fees, nor do I wish to comment on the position that this University should adopt in response to them, since as has been pointed out today, that is a matter for Council. However, I do wish to make three factual points which may illuminate the discussion.
Firstly, current estimates indicate that an undergraduate education at Cambridge costs around £17,000 per student per year, of which about £7,000 is spent in the Colleges. In 2010–11 the combined fee and grant income we receive per Home student will be about £8,300 per student, less than half the cost. This situation is not sustainable.
Secondly, if the funding regime introduced in 2006 had continued without any cuts but had simply tracked inflation, our total income per student in 2015 would be approximately £10,000 per annum. If the University decides to increase the fee in 2012 to the maximum allowed of £9,000 per annum, then by 2015 our total income per student will also be about £10,000 per annum, the same as the old regime would have delivered had the government spending cuts not intervened.
And finally, despite claims to the contrary, there is nothing in the new funding arrangements that will disproportionately affect the arts and humanities, and even if there were so, Cambridge does not hypothecate any of its income streams, preferring instead to allocate funding based on well-considered academic and strategic plans. On the contrary, in my view the real threat is more likely to be to the sciences, where the rapidly reducing government grant will make it harder to justify a uniform fee to all Home undergraduates whilst continuing to provide high quality but costly laboratory-based teaching to those in science and technology.
Dr J. E. Scott-Warren:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I would like to echo the concerns of those who called this Discussion about the implications of the Browne Review and the ensuing funding changes. The University, in its first submission to Browne, admitted that the introduction of tuition fees of £3,000 per annum had not actually brought in any extra teaching money. Failing to learn the obvious lesson from this, we pressed ahead in our second submission for higher fees to narrow the ‘funding gap’ in our teaching budget. At the same time, we emphasized that higher fees would only help if ‘the real value of the Government component’ were maintained.
Instead, the government chose to link the rise in fees to a projected 80% cut in University funding, a cut far more severe than those made in other areas of the public sector. My question to the Council today is: will it issue a formal statement condemning these cuts?
The University’s second submission to Browne signed up to the values of the market, stating that ‘the evolution of a more diverse . . . higher education system . . . will be stimulated by a more open market in the fees that may be charged’. For many of us, such a claim is a betrayal of the University’s historic mission, since it is based on a doubtful equation between learning and shopping. But even if one did sign up to this belief, one would have to condemn the recent changes. In the first place, it is not at all clear that a deferred-repayment scheme – buy now, pay when you are earning £21,000 – can create a competitive free market. Secondly, it is likely that all HEIs will have to charge £7,000 to £7,500 per annum just to break even on tuition. So the price differential between the cheapest institutions and the most expensive will be as little as £2,000. This is a hopeless fudge, which will do nothing to encourage educational diversity. Again, will the Council speak out formally against these cuts?
The University makes clear in its second submission that the quid pro quo for higher fees is ‘the strengthening of the sector’s commitment to widening participation’. Some good news at last. But can the University make good this commitment, given the poor hand that it has been dealt? Its first submission mentioned with pride that the previous four years had seen a 2% rise in the proportion of those admitted from state schools, and a 1% rise in participation of students in social classes 4 to 7. These not exactly earth-shattering statistics were left out of the second submission, which tellingly made no reference to the impact of higher fees on access. Such rises as we have achieved presumably have everything to do with the work of our admissions tutors, and very little to do with the rising cost of study.
The University has now been set the impossible task of admitting more students from non-privileged backgrounds whilst threatening them with a heavy burden of debt for tuition and maintenance. Again, will the Council speak out against these cuts?
In cutting back its already miserable contribution, and in tripling fees, the government is conducting a hugely irresponsible experiment with a university system that has been ground down by many years of inadequate funding. Many predict that departments and perhaps whole institutions, will go to the wall as a result. Many also say that ‘Cambridge will be okay’. I see no reason to believe this. Although the Vice-Chancellor has ‘repeat[ed] . . . [his] commitment to maintaining the financial and academic health of all six of our academic Schools’, our humanities Faculties are already being cut. English, my Faculty, is predicted to lose eight out of 37 UTO posts in the coming years, a contraction of more than 20%. Modern and Medieval Languages will lose 18 UTO posts out of 65 – roughly 28%. Swathes of what we do are about to fall under the axe. I ask the Council to speak out against these cuts.
The University will pay a high price if it fails to speak out loud and clear against the heedless savagery of recent legislation. In the run-up to the forthcoming White Paper, it is essential that we make our voice heard, defending education – particularly in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and non-applied sciences – as a public good that deserves strong state support.
Professor S. C. Franklin:
Vice-Chancellor, much of the debate on the Government’s proposals for the funding of undergraduate teaching has centred on the position of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. I would like to comment briefly on this specific aspect, in my capacity as head of the School of Arts and Humanities.
At present, funding for the teaching of Home students is provided through two routes: each student pays a fee that is the same for every subject, and the Funding Council provides an additional sum through the block teaching grant. This sum from the Funding Council varies according to the subject studied. The per capita teaching grant is lowest for the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and higher for laboratory-based subjects where the costs of teaching are higher. Under Lord Browne’s proposals, the per capita teaching grant would be reduced by an identical amount for each subject. Thus universities would continue to receive a teaching grant for the differential costs of the laboratory subjects, but, the cash cut per student would be no larger with respect to arts, humanities, and social sciences disciplines than for any other area.
If this aspect of the Browne proposal is adopted, one consequence is that the University can in future continue to set a single fee for Home undergraduate students irrespective of subject, and yet maintain the relative financial position of its Schools. The position of the arts, humanities, and social sciences was severely undermined by the HEFCE formula for the allocation of QR, RAE-related income. However, provided that our courses continue to attract talented students, and we’ve heard the possible problems there, there is no reason for the changes in teaching funding to result in a narrowing of the University’s mission.
Professor S. R. S. Szreter:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, the government is preparing a White Paper substantially based on the Browne Review. Now that legislation is imminent, it is incumbent on Cambridge University to take a lead in questioning the shoddy methodology of the Browne Review, and I would ask the Vice-Chancellor and the Council to take this necessary lead. Only by exposing its bogus methodology and sham intellectual basis can the truly untested, merely ideological nature of its proposals be exposed for parliamentarians and the public to see. And some of my colleagues have identified the more precise aspects that I’m referring to.
The Browne report purports to apply the logic of abstract micro-economic behavioural analysis to the HE sector, supported by the opinions of self-nominated businessmen, as an intellectual basis for redesigning the nation’s higher education system, and specifically for plugging an alleged skills gap of some 20% or more of businesses in their existing workforces.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I would like to urge the University to commend to the government the fruits of a sound knowledge of recent British history as the basis for recommending an entirely alternative method for upgrading the nation’s labour force skills, if that is what the business lobby demands of it.
Almost exactly 90 years ago, in 1922, R. H. Tawney published a famous document arguing that the then-young Labour Party should adopt a policy of ‘Secondary Education for All’. At that time, this was considered to be of doubtful value by the great majority of conservative and business opinion in the UK – surely the proposal of a Utopian dreamer that all English citizens should have a right to secondary education? What possible use could it be to most of them? It would only make them discontented with their lot of working in factories. How could the nation possibly afford to educate all its boys and girls to secondary school standard? Recall that at this time in 1922 nothing like 50% or even 40% of youngsters were lucky enough to be benefiting from secondary schooling. Yet within 22 years of Tawney’s visionary proposal, the 1944 Butler Education Act had been passed by a Conservative minister, and later Master of Trinity College in this University, in a wartime Coalition Government. This Butler Act mandated free secondary education for all, the visionary, supposedly unaffordable, socially just, and also economically correct, policy Tawney had argued for.
Despite a post-war austerity far harsher than the one we face today (one speaker has talked about the unaffordability of free higher education – the austerity in the 1940s and early 50s was far more extreme in terms of public and government funding), the nation found the resources to massively expand and publicly fund its secondary schools and their teaching staffs, without going bankrupt. Who today looking back could possibly say that Tawney was wrong, and the businessmen of the 1920s were right? In truth, Britain legislated to massively upgrade its human capital by making secondary education universal at the 11th hour, in terms of the national productivity of its economy, which had been flagging badly since 1913. By contrast, from 1950 to 1973, as is well-known, the British economy participated fully in the post-war Golden Age and enjoyed its highest sustained rates of economic growth in its history, as its secondary-educated workforce and tertiary sector expanded ahead of its declining, traditional manufacturing sector.
In the 1920s, business opinion could only see the costs not the benefits of universal extension of the nation’s educational provision. Business takes a short-term perspective and does not like anything that implies higher taxation. The assumptions of micro-economic analysis contain the same prejudicial shortcomings by methodological design. History shows they are not to be trusted as a reliable guide to inform the principles for long-range thinking, most especially in relation to the nation’s education system, its equitable design, and its economic virtues.
If businessmen today are convinced there is a major skills gap in the economy, then the lessons of recent British history are that they should now be campaigning for universal and free further education and training for all. That businessmen and that narrowly economic analysis can be relied on not to do this is also a lesson of history. But Cambridge University, in common with our other institutions of advanced learning, must take a lead in opposing this flawed and narrowly short-term view of our nation’s HE and FE systems and their needs.
Just as Tawney argued that secondary education should be a democratic right for all citizens, so with almost a further century of economic growth and development behind us, and a full democracy from age 18 for both men and women, it is now the time to call for the right to three years of further education for all. I certainly agree that it should no longer be the preserve exclusively of the children of the upper and middle classes, those who can afford it – and a fortunate few from the working classes who can win scholarships or bursaries – to benefit from substantial post-secondary education and training. All citizens should be equally entitled to up to three years of further training and education of their choice beyond secondary school.
It should be a citizen right for all that they can take up three years’ worth of education or training at any point in their lives that suits them in units of study that suit them. Our society is now collectively wealthier than ever in its history, and choice, in the world of education and training, should now be extended to mean a fair, open, and equal choice for everybody to access the post-secondary education and training they believe to be appropriate to their needs, at a point in their lives they choose, to access this valuable empowering resource of shared citizenship. This should be paid for universally out of general taxation, just as the expansion of secondary education was in its day, in a time of far harsher austerity. The recent major review, Tax by Design, chaired by James Mirrlees, a Nobel laureate of this University, conclusively demonstrates that the notion that the nation simply cannot afford such a policy – and that therefore it need not be considered – is not remotely compelling.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I would ask you and the Council to use the University’s status and authority to consider this and the many other arguments put forward by colleagues to offer an opposed and alternative design for the future of both HE and FE in this country, alternative to that of the flawed and sciolistic Browne report and the derivative government White Paper.
Dr D. A. Hillman:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, thank you for being here today. I want to make two very brief points, and then to offer a quotation from one of the great past reformers in the field of higher education, Charles W. Eliot, President for 40 years of Harvard University.
First, I just want to put more sharply the following point that’s already been made: that the University of Cambridge, as a world leader in so many important fields, should be a world leader in opposing not just this government’s profoundly wrong-headed higher education policies but the entire long-term trend towards marketization in matters of education. It is the university’s place in society to think ahead and to try to formulate the paradigms for future thought, not to sit about waiting for the future to engulf it. If it is impact that this Government wants, well here, in this arena, this is the first and the most important place where we can and must supply it.
Second, if education is a matter of creating critical thinkers, a place dedicated to fostering the ability to challenge ideas that are pre-packaged or ready-made, then what does it say about the University of Cambridge if it meekly accepts (even implicitly) the doctrines of university-as-business and student-as-consumer – precisely those pre-packaged ideas (and indeed, as we’ve already heard, shoddily pre-packaged ideas) being promoted by the Browne report and the current government? If we want our students to challenge preconceptions and think innovatively, we need to be the ones setting the example; and if not now, when?
Third, the aforementioned quotation, from Charles W. Eliot. This is from about a hundred years ago, but just as resonant today. Eliot said:
Universities are teachers, store-houses, and searchers for truth. . . . In addition to these three direct functions, a university has less direct, but still important purposes to fulfill. It should exert a unifying social influence. . . . A university which draws its students from a large area has also a unifying influence in regard to political discussions and divisions. A true university is a school of public spirit for its governors, benefactors, officers, graduates, and students. It stands for intellectual and spiritual forces against materialism and luxury.
Dr R. A. Alexander (read by Dr B. K. Etherington):
Mr Vice-Chancellor, we have several concerns about the proposed changes in higher education funding. On the surface, research budgets appear to have escaped the huge cuts in public funding which threaten teaching. Despite this, I would argue that the changes proposed by the current government will prove just as destructive to publicly-funded research as they will to publicly-funded teaching.
In particular, the combination of cuts in the block grants for teaching for arts, humanities, and social science disciplines, huge increases in tuition fees, and the accelerating marketization of the university system is likely to mean the following:
1. A widening gap between research and teaching (and between researchers and teachers) as overall cuts are likely to reduce the absolute number of posts which combine research and teaching, including at Cambridge, as we have heard from other colleagues.
2. Arts, humanities, and social sciences research disappearing from a large number of universities, given that the current systems for applying for research funding are based on the assumption that the principal applicant is in an established position at the level of lecturer or more senior. As higher education institutions cut teaching jobs in ‘unprofitable’ subjects (so-defined), so in effect, there is likely to be a profound impact on research. And if research in the arts and humanities disciplines continues in institutions which no longer offer the full range of arts and humanities teaching, this will further weaken the link between research activity and teaching.
3. In those institutions which do maintain research activity across a broad range of academic disciplines, pressures to bring in external funding will intensify as universities seek to off-set the cuts. Increased competition for a scarce pool of external research funding in a context where the government has already demonstrated that it is only interested in the kind of ‘value’ which can be written into a balance sheet, is likely to encourage funding bodies to reward research proposals which can demonstrate ‘impact’ in the same narrow arena.
4. Overall cuts to university funding will encourage higher education institutions to perpetuate the system of employing the bulk of research staff on fixed-term contracts, while lecturers may also increasingly be appointed on a short-term basis. I (we) believe strongly that denying research or teaching staff secure employment is a false economy: instead of concentrating on their work, they are constantly drained by worrying about the next job application; while institutions endlessly repeat cycles of recruitment and redundancy. This system makes it difficult to engage in any kind of strategic planning for research at an institutional level, particularly in new and emerging fields.
So we would like to urge Council to (1) consider carefully the wider implications for research when restructuring teaching after the recent cuts, taking concrete measures to ensure that the breadth of research areas is maintained, and (2) to arrest the proliferation of fixed-term positions and use of casual labour, and create real, secure jobs for research staff.
Dr P. Gopal (read by Mr W. Yaqoob)
Mr Vice-Chancellor, last month, in the midst of this unprecedented assault on universities, our students took a principled and determined stand against the disastrous proposed changes. They are now joined by large numbers of teaching and administrative staff. The issues at stake are clear: if we as an institution and community of learning do not now, once and for all, unambiguously defend the principle of public higher education, all of us – academics, research, academic-related, and administrative staff, that is, the University itself – stand to lose collectively and heavily. Our students have been remarkably clear-sighted in asserting the principles underlying the public university. We too must stand up for public higher education as we formulate a response to the Browne Review. Given that we have already been caught on the back foot, particularly in the arts and humanities, it is imperative that we not wait for the White Paper on higher education funding before spelling out a robust response, towards which I raise these questions:
1. Britain is already well behind other industrialized nations, including the US, in proportion of GDP (1.3%) invested in, and public spending (0.7%) on education. The proposed cuts lower these abysmal figures even further. This is a country where participation rates in higher education are already behind many other countries in Europe and Asia. In line with its second submission to the Browne Review, will the University consider demanding a reinstatement of a larger government component for higher education?
2. Higher education can be plausibly funded by a structure of progressive taxation rather than through student fees. Since graduates are, on the whole, higher earners compared to non-graduates, funding higher education through income tax will enable a recouping of accumulated debt without penalizing those graduates who earn substantially less than the others. Given the absurdly low proposed earnings threshold of £21,000 for the repayment of student fees, and given that many modestly waged key workers such as teachers and nurses will be inequitably affected, is the University willing to make the case for progressive income taxation as the fairest basis for higher education funding?
3. The changes in higher education policy are moving universities in the direction of the complete withdrawal of state funding and, therefore, full privatization. Higher fees and scrapped maintenance allowances will deter thousands from applying to universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge. The result will be profound educational and economic segregation. It will reverse the years of hard work we have put into access schemes to open Cambridge’s doors to the economically and socially less privileged. Does the University have concrete plans to (a) ensure that it does not go down the road of privatization and (b) that the gains of recent years are not only not reversed, but built upon?
Mr N. M. Maclaren (read by Mr M. B. Beckles):
Vice-Chancellor, I doubt that it will make any practical difference how this University responds to this report. It is impossible to have a rational debate with people who have closed their minds, whether they be religious fundamentalists, Marxist-Leninists, or monetarists. At best, some details would be modified in response, and this report has omitted most of the details.
There are good things about this report: removing the penalization of part-time students is particularly welcome, as is the purported simplification of the current procedures. And, as far as I can see, Cambridge will do relatively well out of this scheme, because it is a science-based university in high demand.
But the proposal is yet another nail in the coffin of universities providing a liberal education, and I believe that its result will be more exclusivity rather than less, especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
Professor G. R. Evans (read by Mr M. B. Beckles):
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I want to make two key points. The first concerns the dangerousness of short memories in higher education politics; the second, the particular moment of Government amnesia which has led to a convenient forgetting of the principle of ‘additionality’. ‘Additionality’ was the jargon term for the long-standing assurance that tuition fees would be additional to public funding and not be used to substitute for it.
The Browne Review1 was set up in November 2009 to fulfil the promise made when university tuition fees were increased in 2004 that there would be a review five years on. As Baroness Blackstone put it in the debate in the House of Lords, ‘this independent review was promised . . . when variable fees were introduced so that after five years the fairness or otherwise of the new system could be examined’. But it went far further than that, as she pointed out:
At the time, no one could have predicted that such a review would double the fees then proposed and assume that the public funding of 80 per cent of undergraduate tuition would be abandoned. Nor would anyone have predicted that this review would be based on a commitment to the free market that is so extreme that it abandons, to quote Sir Peter Scott, a much respected vice-chancellor and former member of the HEFCE board, ‘the very idea of a public system of higher education, built with such care and effort since Robbins’ (Col. 1238-9).2
In November 2010, in the face of a series of student protests and sit-ins, including the one here in Cambridge, both Houses of Parliament voted for a tuition-fee rise, up to a maximum of £9,000. Concerns were expressed that the remainder of the suggestions in the Browne Review had not yet been taken into account, and that it was unsatisfactory to move ahead so precipitately on the level of fees without sight of the White Paper promised in Spring 2011 proposing legislative change; these concerns were ignored by Government.
Short memories are dangerous in the framing of public policy affecting national assets whose natural timescale is much longer than the ‘politician’s week’. In the House of Commons debate on the introduction of the tuition fee in 1998, Robert Jackson MP commended the idea as an advance on the principle of offering loans for student maintenance adumbrated in 1989 on the grounds that they ‘were a further, desirable step toward rationality and equity in the use of taxpayer’s (sic) money’.3 A thread of comments on this ‘balancing’ exercise may be traced thereafter as the ‘balance’ shifts from the notion that public funding of universities is appropriate for the general good, but students can reasonably be expected to make a contribution, to the Browne proposal that the whole cost of their education should be borne by students through their tuition fees.
In the early stages of this rebalancing process, it was taken for granted – and the presumption was reinforced by promises – that the student contribution would be additional to public funding. Baroness Blackstone in the House of Lords in 2010 again:
When I had some responsibility for the introduction of fees in 1998, they were an addition to public funding, as was the introduction of variable fees in 2004 (Col. 1238-9).4
The term of art for this between 2004 and 2006 was ‘additionality’. In the present proposal to triple the tuition fee and cut public funding of higher education by about 80%, the repeated promise of ‘additionality’ is replaced – without acknowledging that a promise has been broken – by the ‘substitutionary’ principle.
It is not impossible that the fact that there was a promise has slipped Government minds under the pressures of the current calls for funding cuts, because of the hurry and the untidiness of process which has marked Government moves on higher education funding in the last two decades. If so, it is another failure of memory from which it should have been the job of civil servants and advisers to save the Government. Jack Straw, speaking in the Commons in 1990, in the debate on the replacement of student grants with student loans, was critical of the way the process had been conducted:
The scheme has been brought in with a degree of administrative chaos that has rarely been seen for any new scheme. That is reflected in the fact that the regulations had to be withdrawn last Tuesday and in the way in which they were pushed through the other place. Lord Boyd-Carpenter . . . launched a strong attack on the way in which the regulations were physically presented to that House. He said: “Can my noble Friend really say that this dirty bit of paper with inked-in corrections, deletions and amendments all over it and with two typed-in so-called riders is the form in which your Lordships’ House should be asked to approve legislation?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 June 1990; Vol. 520, c. 1766.] That would be funny were it not serious. It shows that Ministers have been working hand to mouth, not knowing what they have been doing from one minute to the next.5
Coupled with the chaotic process we are seeing again now, the failure of ‘memory’ is of importance. It appears to have affected short-term as well as relatively long-term memory. The submissions to Browne6 were made on the assumption that there were to be ‘cuts in public funding for higher education, totalling around £1 billion by 2013’ (Universities UK). The scale of the cuts proposed in the Comprehensive Spending Review of late 2010 naturally did not – because it could not – feature in the calculations of those making submissions months earlier. One might have expected note to be taken of this in the risk assessment published by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills7 which makes much of Browne’s reliance on ‘evidence’ and deems the Browne Review itself to constitute ‘evidence’. But no.
In any case, the time-scales are entirely out of ‘synch’ with the figures given to justify the rise. Browne’s proposals cover decades of a future graduate’s adult life. To state that a graduate can expect to earn £100,000 more than a non-graduate over a working lifetime8 is meaningless if that figure is not ‘inflation-proofed’ against the changing value of money. Calculations about probable rates of repayment of loans make mathematical nonsense if it is assumed that an annual salary of £21,000 or a tuition fee of £9,000 will mean the same for 30 years or more and interest-rates will not change.
As an academic, one is bound to want to send the authors of this first draft of a disturbing plan for the future of higher education back to do the necessary research. The vote about fees does not give us a done deal. Much can be said and done when the White Paper is published and I hope there will be another Discussion in Cambridge then. Meanwhile, perhaps I may mention that the Annual Reports of the Council and the General Board and the Annual Accounts, to be discussed next week, all contain relevant mentions of fees and funding. There will be opportunities to speak again on all this then, and consolidate in the historical record a well-researched and reasoned body of Cambridge comment.
8Lord Browne, ‘Over the course of their working life, the average graduate earns around £100,000 more than if they had not gone to university after A-levels’ (col.1231), http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/101027-0001.htm#10102748000335
Mr M. B. Beckles:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, may I first say what a pleasure it is to see the Vice-Chancellor chairing this Discussion in person?
I am one of the members of the Regent House who helped to organize this topic of concern. I am a member of academic-related staff employed within the UCS [University Computing Service], and so belong to neither a category of staff, nor an institution, that has, thus far, been particularly vocal on the topic before us today. However, given the severity of the cuts facing the higher education sector – both direct cuts to government budgets and indirect cuts to universities’ revenue caused by the iniquitous fees regime the government would have us adopt – it is likely that this University will also have to make significant ‘cost savings’. This will impact academic-related staff, and central services, such as the UCS, just as much (if not more) than it will academic staff and Departments. So it is only right that we should be involved in the difficult decisions that the University is likely to face in the coming months and years, and I hope more of my academic-related colleagues, and colleagues from the central bodies of the University, will make their voices heard.
Many of my colleagues here today will be addressing the matters to do with the substance of the Browne Review and the associated proposals for changes to the funding of higher education, and others will be addressing aspects of the University’s response to this challenging situation. I leave that to them, in particular to Professor Evans, Dr Lawrence King, and Dr Adam Stewart-Wallace, whose arguments I strongly support. In my contribution to today’s Discussion, I would like to focus on the University’s internal response and how that response can best include the concerns of all those in our community, and how it can facilitate the informed expression of those concerns. I’d like to start by briefly looking at the University’s internal response to the Browne Review while that Review was still ongoing.
Many of my colleagues, myself included, first knew of the University’s second submission1 to the Browne Review when we read a Notice2 in the Reporter (2009–10, p. 850) of 19 May 2010, which told us that ‘the Council has now submitted its response to the second call for evidence to the independent (Browne) review . . .’. To our surprise, this Notice was followed a week later (Reporter, 2009–10, p. 898) by another Notice3 which replaced the first one and blithely informed us that ‘the response to the second call for evidence to the independent (Browne) review of higher education funding and student finance has now been submitted’ (note the passive voice). It would seem that the submission had not been submitted by the Council, but rather by persons unknown. Who were these individuals? Did they infiltrate the Old Schools, steal one of the University seals and submit the document without the knowledge or approval of the Council? Perhaps it was the invisible hand of the market which was responsible? We may never know.
I have since heard that the Council never had an opportunity to approve the final version of the second submission, which was presumably the reason for the corrected Notice. So it would seem that the University’s official submission to the Browne Review’s call for ‘proposals for the future funding of teaching within the UK higher education system’4 was not only never discussed or approved by the Regent House, it was not even approved by Council. Given that the Regent House still doesn’t know who did approve this submission, it is clear that it was not formulated or handled in a manner that was as transparent as the Regent House was entitled to expect.
Since the publication of the Browne Review, there has been an enormous amount of concern amongst both staff and students as to the University’s position with regard to the changes to higher education funding, and, naturally enough, some of this concern has been with the University’s plans for dealing with the new fiscally challenged era in which we find ourselves. Council has been reluctant to discuss its plans, arguing, for instance, that ‘it will not be possible for the Council responsibly to propose Cambridge arrangements for fees and student support until [more Government and HEFCE decisions] have been taken’.5 In fairness to the Council, it does also recognize that ‘some Cambridge decisions on fees, widening participation and student support will need to be made well before [the Government White Paper in 2011]’.6
I think, though, that Council need to go further than this. The government has demonstrated that, regarding its plans in this area, it will not only move to legislate very quickly, it will also neglect or postpone its normal consultation procedures. We therefore need to be prepared to move at least as quickly, and we need to anticipate what the government might do, and prepare for it. One of the lessons of the successful public campaign to preserve the science and research budget is that you need to start your campaign well before the relevant changes are announced, not after. We cannot wait for the details of the forthcoming White Paper.
And the University administration is making plans. At the meeting of the Planning and Resources Committee (PRC) on 24 November 2010,7 the committee received a joint report from its working groups on organizational and financial efficiency8, and noted that its sub-group on fees and bursaries was due to meet the next day. Under the heading ‘The future of student fees and funding’, the minutes of the General Board’s meeting on 1 December 20109 confirm that the recommendations of the PRC Working Group on fees and funding were discussed at that meeting; they were also due to be discussed at Council’s meeting of 6 December 2010.
The Regent House and the rest of the University need to be involved in these plans; we need to help shape the University’s response to these challenges, and we need to be involved sooner rather than later. At the very least, we need to know what the plans are. I am therefore asking the Council and the General Board, in these extraordinarily difficult times in which we find ourselves, the following question: will they undertake to ensure that unconfirmed minutes of, and – crucially – also the reports, papers, and so on, presented at, the relevant meetings of University committees, including sub-groups and working parties of those committees, are published, at least within the University, as soon as possible? This would let the rest of the University know what was being planned and so better able us to take part in shaping those plans in a timely fashion.
And, given the controversial nature of the fee increases, will the Council, remembering its Statement of intention10 in Ordinances, promise us that any fee increases (at least for undergraduates) will be brought before the Regent House in the form of a Grace (ideally with an accompanying Report)?
10Ordinances, Chapter I, THE COUNCIL, Notice by the Council, Statement of intention (p. 114)
Professor S. P. Jarvis:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, at the close of the Browne Review, its authors applaud themselves thus: ‘We have never lost sight of the value of learning to students, nor the significant contribution of higher education to the quality of life in a civilized society.’ One distinguished scholar in the United States has expressed the opinion that this declaration might be described either as a lie or as a joke.
The Council has said that there are ‘strong arguments’ for the retention of a significant element of public funding for our universities. Is this not rather as though a man were to stand watching his house burn down, whilst declaring loudly that there were ‘strong arguments’ for the use of a fire extinguisher? Mr Vice-Chancellor, might I say how warmly I welcome your clear statement in your New Year message that ‘the health of the arts, humanities and social sciences in Cambridge is a measure of the health of the University itself’, and your stated determination ‘to uphold breadth, as well as excellence, in the education we offer’. Will the Council now bestow a concrete meaning on these fine words? It may do so in the simplest way imaginable: by committing itself to an assurance that the staffing levels of Departments in the arts, humanities, and social sciences will not be allowed to decline. Absent such an assurance, all parsnips remain unbuttered.
Mr J. H. Prynne:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I regard the currently proposed changes in funding for United Kingdom universities, and for higher education generally, as a major crisis which has the potential to inflict very serious damage on the function of knowledge in our society. It is true that, at the present time, there is a serious shortfall in the funding that government can deploy to support the many aspects of public life that have previously been financially assisted to function for the public benefit. In balancing priorities and reducing wasteful expenditure, the task must surely be to reduce to a minimum any deeply destructive damage that will throw into jeopardy the whole raison-d’être of a central function of social practice. There are principles and core values which provide motives for protecting the socially vulnerable, for example, and for not severely compromising the future in exchange for a temporary saving in the immediate present. To make rational, and as far as possible, disinterested, appraisal of how priorities should be determined is for sure not easy; if a distinct interest-group seeks to claim exemption or part-exemption from severe cuts in funding, the argument needs to be principled and not just self-righteous parti pris.
First, then, are the proposed cuts in funding for higher education disproportionate and likely to cause deep structural damage? Yes, in my view, they are. Can the proposed alternative models for constructing a different basis for funding higher education avoid some or all of this damage? In my view no, because the commercial-funding market model which is under discussion cannot be a solution, because it is itself a symptom of the problem and the damage which the problem brings with it.
I want to address not the detail of alternative schemes, but fundamental first principles. I believe that just as personal and collective health is essential as the basis for social existence, so a collective understanding of knowledge as the enablement of almost all forms of ambitious human activity is a fundamental value. The pursuit of knowledge and its various uses are specialized functions within society, not evenly distributed; but the accruing value of advancements in knowledge and its uses are a sign of active intelligence in all walks of life, and the benefits diffuse far beyond the points of origin at which new knowledge is developed and tested and applied. The pursuit and application of knowledge, taken together, is a fundamental public good.
It follows from this view that institutions and functions that are devoted to this commitment perform a vital task in long-term social development. Social structures like colleges and universities and research institutes enhance knowledge, by research and teaching, and transmit the disciplines of intellectual method and enquiry to each new generation. It can be cogently argued that this is a long-term public good; and it can also be recognized that supporting these functions requires a robust sense of continuity if momentum is to be maintained, with protection against opportunistic raids on the funding which such support requires. It’s worth reminding ourselves that knowledge and understanding flow into the movement of social life not only as pure intellectual advantage, but to facilitate new practical uses for information and insight, and to motivate the teaching work by which the consequences of knowledge can be handed on to students who will learn how to apply and judge knowledge and to discover it for themselves.
However, looking at the student aspect, we find a really major crisis staring us in the face. The proposed massive increases in the pricing of access to higher education must assuredly compromise all the efforts being made to widen access to students from less financially assured backgrounds.
These increases, however carried out, will dramatically highlight the fundamental questions about justifying the higher education process. If the motive and outcome of a course of advanced, intensive study are still part of the public good, then some major part of the expense ought in justice to be met from the public purse. And yet, there is also another strand of argument that a disinterested observer should feel obligated to take into account. Students who benefit from close contact with advanced teaching, and from the opportunity to develop advanced skills in using knowledge, undoubtedly acquire personal advantage not only in the fulfilment of their learning potential, but also in the rewards accruing to them in a subsequent professional life, often bringing with it handsome wealth acquisition.
This aspect looks less like a general public good, more like an individual or sectional private benefit. It seems not clear why the general tax-payer should subsidize these unequally distributed advantages, without any major cost to those who aquire the benefit of them.
Often in real life we encounter two contrasting and even mutually contradictory arguments, which both seem to rest on justifying realities. A good intellectual training should give us a good start in seeking out clarification. We should ask more closely, what exactly is the ‘public good’ represented not merely in enhanced knowledge abstractly considered, but in the results of advanced education such as generated in the teaching work of institutes devoted to knowledge. Here are some suggestions.
A society that contains within its make-up some developed skills in applied critical intelligence can thereby the better make sense of many otherwise obscure difficulties. Clear minds, with good understanding of methods and principles of interpretation, can assist the social process in gaining insight into itself: understanding, for instance, the many factors in social cohesion, the relations between private and public values, the moral priorities in addressing issues of social justice, the bearing of verified evidence and raw data on reaching decisions and balancing claims in conflict with one another. These are skills in intelligence, calling on social, emotional, and moral insights, and requiring serious powers of analysis such as can generate trust in professional work. This outline may seem impossibly idealistic when set against prevalent instances of greed, turpitude, and betrayal of principles in current public life; but we are dismayed by these breaches of moral intelligence precisely because we still maintain some expectation that if you hold principles and understand them you are part of what is the moral capital of social practice. Scientific disciplines provide the skills to base knowledge on tested information and in that way to advance major discovery; and the disciplines of the humanities focus and develop skills of interpretation and judgement and the clear ordering of social diagnosis. The education provided by a university arts course comprises a moral store-house, accompanied by the instruments required to use these fundamental aspects of human reason and imagination in productive ways.
Here, then, is the ‘public good’ argument, in defence of the maintenance of knowledge and intelligence as a core value for human society. Some university students will probably earn a lot of extra money in using these skills professionally, and probably there should be some element of recompense devised to reflect this.
But overall, and in basic principle, the advancement of fair and adept agency in social practice absolutely requires good education, and good higher education, as fundamental necessities.
The currently proposed cuts to funding at all levels of higher education drastically offend against these arguments and the core values upon which they rest. These cuts need to be resisted strenuously, not for reasons of selfish sectarian advantage, but because a critical part of the social fabric is threatened. This surely means that institutes of higher learning and teaching, and the students and staff at all levels who keep them going, should be united in defence of these values. It means, too, that internal dissent about tactics or relative deployments should be set aside in the face of our current emergency. It means above all that acknowledged leaders in the perceived rank-order of institutions should recognize a duty to provide clear leadership: to make a clear analysis based directly on core values, and then to proclaim unambiguously their commitment to defence of these values, and support for others trying to mount similar defences under pressure from these general and widespread threats. The University of Cambridge should find means to resolve its wide range of views internally, by intellectual consultation and debate, and then without delay should take up its position in full public view. Not to do this is cowardly and evasive, because if we wait to see what happens, how the process gradually declares itself, then major damage will already have been done. It is simply necessary not to waste time, temporizing or drawing false comfort from the notion that our superior status will give us protection. Many other universities are threatened with calamity, and we should do all in our power to give them support.
And finally, we owe it to ourselves to develop means to use our funds of intelligence in a public way. It is probably not too extreme to compare this historic crisis to a wartime footing. New boldness and commitment are required to combat this creeping destruction. The current financial crisis is in historical terms a local aberration; yet over-eager and reckless exploitation of the justification it apparently offers, to ransack universities and override their delicate autonomies, can surely inflict deep and permanent damage. We should recognize what’s happening all around us, and take action now.
Dr B. Groisman:
Mr Vice-Chancellor, as a physicist, I would like to raise a few questions related to the Cambridge University response to inconsistencies regarding treatment of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects throughout the Browne Review.
‘In our proposals,’ – the Review says – ‘the system is put on a more sustainable footing by . . . removing the blanket subsidy for all courses – without losing vital public investment in priority courses.’ Similarly, it is claimed in Section 3.2 that ‘there are clinical and priority courses such as medicine, science and engineering that are important to the wellbeing of our society and to our economy.’ It seems to me that the architects of the Browne Review clearly have taken upon themselves the liberty to determine and tell the public which disciplines are important to the wellbeing of the society and the economy as a whole, and which are not. I am asking the Council to clarify its position on this issue: namely, which disciplines amongst those taught and researched at the University of Cambridge are important for the wellbeing of the society and which are not, and why?
The Browne Review advocated a clearly self-contradictory position. On the one hand, it proposes to open higher education degrees to a free market (‘competition generally raises quality’, it says). On the other hand, it proposes to exclude many courses which are perceived as strategic from this market: ‘There is nevertheless a strong case for additional and targeted investment by the public in certain courses.’ The authors of the report admit themselves that (section 6.2) ‘students may not choose these courses because the private returns are not as high as other courses, the costs are higher and there are cheaper courses on offer, or simply because these courses are perceived as more difficult.’
Does the Council believe that such a double-standard policy, which is biased towards STEM (strategic subjects), is legitimate and justified?
And finally, this brings me to the issue of dealing with various subjects inside the STEM disciplines. My view is that in STEM disciplines the policy of strongly prioritizing research with short-term or foreseeable business or industrial impact has become a norm in recent years. Fundamental research has become increasingly marginalized and harder to find funding for. Some researchers disguise fundamental aspects of their proposals in such a way that they will sound more industrially appealing. This, in turn, already leads to students’ choice of courses within STEM disciplines being strongly biased towards those that lead to better prospective employment. The purely intellectual merit of science is not an issue for the majority of students.
I need not remind you that the most remarkable discoveries in science were not driven by their business or industrial impact; they were driven by curiosity and intellectual excitement. This is what academic research and higher education institutions are about. If scientific research priorities in the turn of the twentieth century had been driven by ‘the market’ we would have neither the Theory of Relativity, nor Quantum Mechanics, nor Psychoanalysis today. Unfortunately, many policy makers do not see it this way.
In summary, a culture based on short-sighted pragmatism has become very influential in STEM subjects. The legitimacy of a research or study direction lies in its industrial, technological, and business implications and concrete potential practical benefits. New Government policy on higher education will only aggravate this unfortunate situation. Despite putting STEM subjects in a relatively advantaged position, we must still be concerned that unfettered research in STEM subjects will be completely displaced by research serving purely industrial and commercial interests.
My question to the Council: How will the University protect research in the STEM subjects from such an adverse policy? Will those policies have an impact on the way academic personnel in STEM subjects will be managed? Will the University displace the academic staff not involved in projects having a direct impact on industry and business?
The Vice-Chancellor adjourned the Discussion and announced that it would continue at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 February, in the Senate-House.