Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6213

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Vol cxli No 17

pp. 477–508

Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor John Rallison was presiding, with the Registrary’s Deputy, two Proctors, one Pro-Proctor, and forty-two other persons present.

The Discussion of the following topic of concern was continued:

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).

For the first part of the Discussion, see pp. 443–58.

Dr R. Padman:

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak as a member of the Council, but not for the Council.

I want to address the issue of the perceived timidity of the Council’s statement following its meeting on 6 December.

I was elected to the Council two years ago, and in that time only one other issue has occasioned even one representation from Regents. I will come back to that later. Prior to the Council meeting, however, a number of both junior and senior members asked me to support a robust statement critical of government cuts in higher education, such as that issued by SOAS. In fact, at the Council meeting I argued that such a statement from Cambridge would be counterproductive. I am happy to explain my reasoning.

The Council’s statement emphasizes strongly our continuing support for diversity of all sorts – in composition of the student body and across the range of subjects – as well as our support for some measure of public funding based on the idea that higher education is both a private and a public good. Importantly, it is also entirely consistent with our earlier response to the Browne Review, which was reported to the University last May.1

I want to make two brief points before I come to the arguments against a more political statement. First, I need to set out my view that while Council members are elected as representatives of the Regent House, our duty is first to the University, and not to represent the interests of individual Regents, or indeed of the Regent House. This is important. The Council are the legal trustees of the charity that is the University of Cambridge, and are legally required to act in the interest of the charity: trustees should put the interests of the charity before their own interests or those of any other person or organization. There are also strict constraints on political activity. To quote from the Charity Commission: ‘[P]olitical campaigning, or political activity, as defined in this guidance, must be undertaken by a charity only in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes’.2

The second point is to clarify what the government has and has not done. The proposed changes to the funding arrangements are often presented as ‘withdrawal of all funding for non-STEM subjects’. While that is a possible construction, it is not helpful. So far, the Government has simply raised the two fee caps (for institutions with and without Access Agreements), and announced a cut of 80% in HEFCE ‘T’ funding. They have indicated that the residual ‘T’ funding will be used to support STEM subjects to the extent that institutions should continue to be able to afford to offer them, while still charging fees at or below the fee cap. The higher cost of teaching these subjects should therefore not be a deterrent to students. Contrary to the received wisdom, and as the Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor noted two weeks ago, arts and humanities are not being singled out; without the residual teaching grant, STEM subjects would certainly be threatened. The cost of a Cambridge education will continue to be met from private, public, and charitable sources. That is entirely in keeping both with our response to Browne, and with the Council’s statement of 8 December.3

Practically speaking, and depending on where OFFA permits us to set our fees, the University should receive at least the same teaching income as it does now, while students will not face any increases in up-front costs. If we are allowed to charge the full £9,000, the loss we currently make on teaching will be significantly reduced. The University’s ability to deliver on its core purposes is not under threat (although there is always the risk that we might suffocate under a mountain of additional red tape). To my mind, and bearing in mind the Charity Commission’s guidance, that places a serious constraint on our ability to take a political position. In any case, while I understand that those who contacted me disagree strongly with the position taken by the Government, I suspect there are many others who do not disagree, or are even supportive, but did not feel any pressing need to let me know that. The University is not able to represent the political views of its staff.

Neither, I believe, should the University attempt to overturn a decision of the Government which does not bear directly on our ability to carry out our charitable purposes. This is not just lawyering. The Government consulted and we responded; now it has made its decision. It would have been irresponsible to endanger our working relationships with the Government and civil servants of the day, and hence our ability to deliver on our core purposes, for the sake of a political principle not enshrined in any way in our institutional purposes, and which it is hard even to enunciate.

Regents will be aware that the University is currently running a large deficit. Every minute we spend forty pounds more than we earn; sixty thousand pounds a day; twenty million pounds a year. This is not sustainable, and we all know it. The other matter on which I am regularly lobbied is academic job security. It is not unconnected to the funding issue. The new funding regime has the potential to halve our deficit. Individual Regents may place personal principles above job security, but that is not a choice that they can make for their colleagues, or indeed that the Council can make for them.

So why did we not issue a statement along the lines of that issued by SOAS? First, because it was a biased summary of the proposed changes: scientists, engineers, and medics will continue to pay the same fees as those doing arts and humanities. Second, it had the potential to inflict long-term damage on the University’s relationship with government. And third, we could not plausibly and responsibly have argued for a status quo which threatens the University’s continuing ability to operate a needs-blind admission system and to deliver a world-class education.

(Regents might like to remind themselves what SOAS actually said. So would I. However, the SOAS statement has now been removed from their website. They appear to have had second thoughts.)

For the avoidance of doubt, I personally think the Government is mad. Student debt will make subprime mortgages look like a good investment. Even as we speak, our recent maths and physics graduates will be working out how to collateralize this debt, and trade it, for their profit and the taxpayer’s loss. It’s lunatic. But that’s my problem as an individual voter, and not the Council’s.

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I believe the University’s response throughout this process has been consistent, coherent, principled, and professional. I hope Regents will agree.

Professor J. P. Forrester (Department of History and Philosophy of Science):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor pointed out that the higher education system now faces ‘the most fundamental changes for a generation’. I agree. The Coalition Government has used the Browne Review as an excuse to implement a 40% cut in the higher education budget over the next four years – higher education thus taking the brunt of the cuts (65%) in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget. I fear, however, that these changes have been in the pipeline for a long time and the University’s submissions to the Browne Review went too far to meet them. In the past, in other words, we reacted with insufficient vision. We must not do so in this present crisis; now is the time to reaffirm values which are essential to universities. To crystallize those values, I will explore how we came to be confronted by the combined package of draconian cuts and enormous fee increases.

The first great blow to the post-war system of high state funding for our universities was the prolonged financial deprivation initiated, out of an equal mixture of vindictiveness and ideology, by the Thatcher and Major Governments. The resulting parlous state of the universities was addressed by New Labour, in 1997. The ‘New’ part of Labour followed the Dearing Report and introduced the principle that ‘those with higher education qualifications are the main beneficiaries, through improved employment prospects and pay’;1 this underpinned the introduction of [student liability for] fees in 1998 and top-up fees in 2004. It provided the ideological alibi for discarding the previously accepted principle of something like universal free higher education. The present Coalition Government has taken the principle of the economic beneficiary to its logical conclusion. It is a matter of principle, indeed of economic justice, the Browne report argues, that only the beneficiaries should pay. It then supplements the final abandoning of the post-war consensus view with the observation that, because students can’t be relied upon to pay for the more expensive courses, ‘priority areas’, namely STEM subjects and certain languages, will be subsidized through residual government funding.

This abdication of public responsibility for, and interest in, the higher education sector will transform the teaching function of British universities into the most privatized in the world. Already by 2007, the US and rapidly privatizing New Labour Britain had roughly the same balance of public and private support for tertiary education, while British households supported a higher proportion of the total cost (52% for the UK; 34% for the US – the difference is due, as Dr King indicated in his earlier remarks, to the significant source of funding from private non-household income, i.e. from alumni, endowments, and other private sources).2 Once the new £9,000 fees are introduced in the UK, the level of university income derived from household incomes, already on a par with the highest levels in the world, will far exceed any other country save Korea, and, correspondingly, the public support will be far and away the lowest in the world, approaching 20%. Contrast the EU average: 79%.3 Britain will have departed irretrievably far from the European model of the public provision of university education; we will lose substantial numbers of our excellent European students, unless they make the assessment that they can take out student loans, leave the UK on graduation, and avoid the repayments. Once again, Home students will mean UK students – not a surprising result for a Tory government’s education policy. Over the last twenty years, we had the opportunity to be a leader of the European universities as part of the European Union; we will instead be confined to being an eccentric and cramped neo-liberal outlier of the inherently global university system, alien in economic character to both Europe and to North America. The United States’ higher education system is protected from the ravages of neo-liberal orthodoxy by the steady funding streams of the individual States, and by the generosity of its alumni; we, in our centralized former European social funding model, are completely exposed to the ravages imposed by a neo-liberal model taken to its logical and foolish extreme – and implemented.

I do speak personally, but I am also Head of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, and I have experience of, and strong connections with, both science and arts sides of the University – my subject requires a constant cross-fertilization and com­munication between them. I also have some familiarity with the anomalies that the sliding scale of per capita fees can present, of which there will be more. I fear that there will be unforeseen consequences for the balance of the University as a result of these funding reforms: firstly, in the balance between the arts, humanities, social sciences on the one hand, and STEM subjects, with the unpleasant possibility of great pressure to increase [the number of] arts, humanities, and social sciences courses as cheap earners to subsidize the sciences, leading secondly to a distortion of the balance between teaching and research; thirdly, there may be a differential impact on women, who have historically chosen disproportionately to study those subjects which will no longer receive government funding – we are becoming all too familiar with this government’s gender-blind policies having gender-specific effects. I urge the Council to increase its vigilance to counteract any such unpleasant surprises down the road. And who loses most? The sciences, because they are still under the thumb of the government’s perverse and ever-changing funding decisions? Or the arts, humanities, and social sciences, because they are finally freed into the invigorating and fresh, though potentially destructive, air of the market? I ask Council to consider most carefully the potentially invidious effects on the wide range of disciplines of the new funding regime and its future development, a regime based on arbitrary and short-sighted cost-benefit analysis.

The driver of the Browne report’s argument is the principle that the sole beneficiaries of a university education are the higher-wage-earning graduates. The universities all now face a consensus of the three main political parties (I include the Lib-Dems since they no longer know what they believe in). But I for one do not for one moment accept the premise of the argument. And, like Dr King, I hope the University, and first of all the Council, can provide intellectual and moral leadership to persuade first the people of this country and then the Government how short-sighted, mean-spirited, and above all mistaken this policy is.

I ask the Council to spell out the principles, different from those of the Government and their advisers, on which we as a University base our vision. I suggest that the first principle should be that higher education contributes to the greater wellbeing of society at large precisely through the knowledge it produces, a contribution that is quite independent of the increase in the earning power of graduates or the impact of its research. The Council stated in their response on 8 December: ‘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.’ Are the Council persuaded by these strong arguments? They’ve identified strong arguments, but are they persuaded by them? If so, they should spell them out as the central plank for a defence of an alternative template for the funding of our universities.

Secondly, it is a dangerous and narrow view to base the policy of university funding on the premise that those who benefit most should pay most. The NHS is founded on precisely the opposite premise. The significant minority who never see the inside of a hospital and avoid their GPs would be exempt from charges. But the argument over social goods such as health has been well and truly won for the British public. The argument which defends the NHS from such a logic should be widened to include the higher education system. In this I am at one with Professor Szreter’s principle of universal access to free tertiary education. I would add: we should found this principle on analogy not only with secondary education but also with the generalizable principles underlying the NHS. The principle of universal access to free tertiary education is as realistic and appropriate as universal access to free medical care. Knowledge and its transmission are a social good of the same type as health.


Professor C. A. Prendergast (Fellow of King’s College and Emeritus Professor of Modern French Literature):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, thank you for inviting me to speak. Some of what I have to say, I say reluctantly, with all due respect to you and your office as well as to Council and its members. I speak also against the background of having spent most of a working life in Cambridge, in the course of which, while occasionally irritated by all the downsides that go broadly with the parochial assumption of the effortless superiority of a Cambridge man, I have nevertheless come to see and continue to see Cambridge as one of the great cultural and educational institutions of our time, and not just in this country. The wish to protect that is one of the reasons I speak today.

I share the worry expressed by several speakers here two weeks ago concerning both statements already made by Council, and those not made. My worry, however, has an additional feature (and this is the bit I mention with some reluctance). It is that the somewhat guarded, non-committal, and postponing statements made by Council so far mask a willingness in some quarters, even an enthusiastic willingness, to go down the road opened up by the Browne report and Coalition policy (in so far as we are in a position to understand it). That is, to go down a road constructed and signposted broadly as emulation of the US system, in the belief that in the new competitive marketplace Cambridge will emerge not only as a major player but as a rival to institutions like Harvard.

Well, if that is the belief, then I fear it is a fantasy, for many reasons, some of them described by the second speaker in the Discussion here two weeks ago. Only a pan-European institution, with a hinterland of population size and corresponding financial resources comparable to those of the US, could, in a marketplace, be a serious rival to somewhere like Harvard with its gigantic endowment and its huge alumni-donor base. Odd though it may sound, the only way Cambridge can be a rival to Harvard is by continuing as the rival Cambridge already is, as, if one believes in this sort of thing, all the international benchmarks and league tables confirm, and most recently, the QS rankings.

There are many reasons for this astonishing performance across the whole spectrum of subjects (astonishing, I mean, for those who worship at the shrine of the Market). Some have to do with our history and our culture. But in modern times, one quite crucial reason has been public funding. It is this which has protected the range and diversity of disciplines and forms of inquiry that have been a necessary, though of course not a sufficient, condition of establishing and sustaining the reputation of Cambridge as an academic and educational centre of excellence in the very best sense of the term.

In my view, this is the case Council should be making in its response to the Government proposals, stressing that if Government spokespersons are not merely paying lip service to having full-spectrum centres of excellence, then they should put their money where their lips are. Conventional wisdom deems this ‘unaffordable’ and thus at a stroke, kicks it into touch. Well it is not unaffordable; this country is richer than it has ever been, even with the recession. The issue here is not affordability, it has never been affordability, but priorities and choices, and a politics of priorities and choices.

This does not of course mean asking the University to stake out a public position on the basis of construing the public purse as bottomless. Resources are finite. The demand for continued public funding thus needs to go hand in hand with a demand that the government go back to the drawing board and re-think the whole higher education sector in a manner that makes proper sense of it and that secures properly rational outcomes. What we have now is a sprawling and ill-defined mess, the result of a 30-year plus process initiated by the Baker reforms in the Thatcher government of the late 1980s and formalized in the reforms of 1992, as a madcap, underfunded expansion of the university sector, often by a mere trick of nomenclature, simply re-naming an institution as a university. This is what has to be carefully re-thought and redesigned, a project that of course, among many other things, cannot be simply a return to the status quo ante-1992.

But some such rethink is vital. For make no mistake, there is going to be a rethink anyway, or rather, in the trade jargon, a re-structuring and with that a downsizing of the sector, except that it will be a shake-out effected by a random wave of the Invisible Hand, with outcomes difficult to predict, almost impossible to control, and in all likelihood profoundly damaging to the social as well as the educational fabric of this country. In my view (and I am by no means alone in holding it), this is in fact the undeclared aspect of the Government’s agenda, undeclared because there is a perceived political advantage in being able to survey the ensuing wreckage from a position of abdicated responsibility, as, so to speak, an act of God mediated by the Market, and which no mere mortal can be said to have devised (in roughly the same way that, with the assistance of their newly recruited salesman, Mr Simon Hughes, they seek to get themselves off the hook by demanding that universities, and crucially universities such as our own, reverse-social-engineer unequal outcomes prepared way back along the educational chain). Vital parts of our own University will be damaged, other parts of the wider HE sector will be ravaged and abandoned, with no coherent alternative place for their student clientele to go, at a time when EMA has been jettisoned, and youth unemployment has reached a staggering 20% and rising.

We have to show the Government, in as determined a fashion as possible, that this is unacceptable. In short, Council should not be responding defensively, and above all should not simply capitulate as if before a fait accompli. It is possible, probable even, that we will in the end be faced with a fait accompli, as day by day, month by month, and year by year, the Government continues with the one thing everything it has done so far suggests is its main concern – prepare the terrain for the 2015 general election. In this endeavour, it will most certainly take no prisoners, but that project may well disintegrate as the electorate reacts; and even if in the end we are defeated, at the very least we will be able to hold our heads high, rather than hang them in shame.

Dr P. Mody (Mellon Post-doctoral Fellow in Social Anthropology) (read by Dr T. Tate):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I want to draw attention to a constituency that does not even register on the radar of this debate: the overseas students at Cambridge. There appears to be a consensus that whilst ‘our students’’ costs must be defended, the rich and privileged in other parts of the world can be made to pay a disproportionately higher cost for exactly the same education. But the best overseas students are not necessarily the children of the wealthy in the global south; the best are more likely to be those who excel and come here on merit – on one or another of the scholarships afforded by bodies such as the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust. Whatever the dismay at the rising costs of higher education for Home students, the consensus that overseas students will bear the burden of even higher fees than they already pay means that, inevitably, fewer overseas scholarships will be available, and fewer deserving overseas students will enrich the intellectual life of this University. In thinking about local inequities, will the University consider the long-term effects of reducing access from overseas to all those other than the privileged elite?

Dr E. S. Disley (Fellow of Magdalene College and Research Associate in German):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, whilst adding my voice to the general extremely serious concern raised by many of my colleagues on the effects of the proposed new fee regime on equality of access at the undergraduate level, I wish to make some remarks this afternoon about the potentially catastrophic effect on another major group of the University’s membership, namely that of graduate students (a category to which I myself belonged until a couple of years ago) and potential graduate students.

The most obvious and serious obstacle for potential graduate students is, of course, the extremely large sum of money that will accumulate in compound interest whilst they are pursuing their graduate courses. This is likely to act as such a serious disincentive, and another instance of unequal access, that it threatens to change the character of our University, around 40% of whose current student members are graduate students,1 and indeed the academic profession as a whole. Assuming that a potential postgraduate student, as an undergraduate, borrows the full fee of between six and nine thousand pounds for each year of their course, plus several thousand pounds for maintenance, the interest that will accumulate each year will easily reach into the four figures. When the compound element is added to this, the figure will of course be yet higher. Equality of access to postgraduate education is an even more acute problem, at least in mathematical terms, than access to undergraduate education. On a national level, 17% of postgraduate students are privately educated, compared with 14% of undergraduates, even though comparing students from the same socio-economic and school background has revealed that students from the maintained sector are actually slightly more likely to be awarded a first- or upper-second-class degree than their counterparts from independent schools. What is more, this inequality of opportunity is currently widening, according to a March 2010 report from the Sutton Trust.2 The serious disincentives for Home students to pursue postgraduate courses will surely increase this inequality yet further.

This problem of disincentive and of fairness would of course be particularly acute in the case of Ph.D. students, and even within this group the impact would not be equal for all subjects. Those students whose research requires them to perform significant amounts of fieldwork, as in many areas of the social sciences, will be particularly badly affected. If the student in question manages to secure an academic position, the relatively low salaries paid in the first few years of such a career, combined with the new, higher £21,000 threshold of repayment, mean that the graduate will for some years be paying less back per year than the interest accumulated, thus seeing the mountain of debt increase yet further. Particularly for those students who are not from wealthy backgrounds, this will surely be an enormous disincentive to add to the other disincentives to pursue graduate study that already exist, such as reductions in research council funding and the decline in prospects for academic employment in the UK in these times of severe cuts. Older graduate and potential graduate students, who already have family and financial commitments, could be the most severely hit of all.

These particular effects on graduate students and potential graduate students are, of course, concrete examples of the disingenuous way in which the new funding regime is being presented. When tuition fees were introduced along with the new model of student loans in 1998, students were assured that their loans would attract no real interest and that the amount they would owe would not be ‘real’ debt that would affect their ability to borrow money for career development or in the form of mortgages. The former is a myth that has now officially collapsed with the Browne report’s recommendation of charging ‘real’ rates of interest that outstrip inflation by an amount equivalent to the government’s rate of borrowing (which is currently 2.2%),3 and the latter is a promise that, since money-lending is in the hands of our not-entirely-nationalized banking system, a government is not in a position to make.

Now the amount of money someone who has completed an undergraduate degree will owe is becoming far more than the average graduate with a Ph.D. can hope to earn in a year,4 the problem takes on a different proportion. Such a burden of debt inevitably interferes with basic life goals such as having children, developing one’s career further, and buying a home. Women, whose careers are disproportionately affected and often disrupted by childcare responsibilities, are likely to be particularly deterred by financial reasons arising from the proposed funding regime from pursuing postgraduate study. Women are likely to earn less over the course of their careers, as my colleague has pointed out, and therefore will pay back more interest – the proposed repayment system is fundamentally regressive in that those earning less will pay back more interest, whilst those high earners who are able to clear their debt quickly will pay back much less in total. For Cambridge, where women are seriously under-represented at the postgraduate level,5 the potential disincentive effect is particularly alarming in this regard. In general, those without a prodigious earning potential are likely to be seriously worried by the terms of their contract with the Student Loans Company being altered by Acts of Parliament without their consent, as has happened a number of times in the past, for example with the sale of student loan debt to external companies.6 The fact that the debt will take on new proportions once someone decides to pursue postgraduate study may mean that many will decide against it, or may find themselves at increased risk of having to abandon their postgraduate studies for financial reasons.

The consequences of this situation, both from the point of view of the health of our profession, for UK economic and technological competitiveness, and in terms of equality of access to postgraduate study, are disastrous. In terms of the former, it seems clear that the pool of able and talented prospective Home students will sink dramatically, both in the arts and humanities, and in science subjects. Whilst Cambridge is able to attract talented graduate students from abroad, who currently form 50% of the group of graduate students, this is simultaneously under threat from new Home Office proposals concerning visas for students with equivalent level qualifications elsewhere, work visas for students’ spouses, and rules for employment post-Ph.D.7 The proposed new funding regime will severely restrict the University’s ability to attract Home students at the same time as its ability to attract overseas students is under severe threat. Quite apart from the deleterious effect on the diversity of the graduate student population – it is a serious affront to equality of access that only those from wealthy backgrounds unencumbered by family and financial commitments can pursue graduate study – these proposed changes make it difficult to see how Cambridge will be able to remain a world-class university if it cannot attract a sufficient number of the graduate students who have the ability to become productive and innovative future scholars.

In the light of these remarks, I would like to ask Council three questions. Firstly, whether the University will be making provision to raise salaries at the post-doc level to offset the very high debt burden they will have accumulated; secondly, whether the University will be making increased provision for graduate hardship funds to avoid a reduction in Ph.D. completion rates; and thirdly, what provisions the University will be making to improve equality of access to postgraduate study across socio-economic groups, or what safeguards they will be putting in place to assure the situation with regard to the current inequities does not deteriorate yet further.


Professor W. D. Trotter (King Edward VII Professor of English Literature) (read by Ms I. B. Urquhart):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I would like to add my voice to calls already made during this Discussion for the Council of the University to contribute further to the formulation of a defence of higher education, returning to, and based upon, first principles. If there are indeed, as the Council has maintained, ‘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,’ then those arguments would surely be strengthened by a formal exposition of the nature and scope of the public benefit at issue.

A university is a statement to the effect that the skills necessary to develop advanced knowledge should by default remain public property, even when their end-product does not.

Government policy appears to envisage two categories of public benefit. The first category includes provision which has been placed for ideological purposes altogether beyond argument in the guise of an absolute necessity. No one is yet asking us to pay a fee of £9,000 a year individually for the privilege of regular police patrols in our neighbourhoods, or to retain a notional stake in the nation’s nuclear umbrella. The second category includes provision routinely accorded the status of national treasure – that is, something less than an absolute necessity – while just as routinely fed to the wolves through privatizing initiatives of one kind or another. The NHS is a prime example. Higher education, too, clearly falls into the second category. Membership of this category brings with it a burden of perpetual self-justification which could conceivably be turned to advantage. It might be time to make common cause with the NHS, to which we already have close links, in further articulating the idea of public benefit, whilst also insisting that provision in the first category be subjected to comparable scrutiny with regard to its raison d’être.

The tendency in universities has been to regard each new government fiat as a storm to be weathered, in the hope of calm waters beyond. Battening down the hatches with such reliable stoicism may, however, simply provoke further storms. The present government proposes to remove the teaching grant from all subjects except those deemed ‘strategically important’: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. When the next crisis erupts, they or their successors could well decide that one or other of the branches springing from the sacred STEM is not after all quite so strategically important as they once thought it was, and lop that off, too. Strategy is all too often opportunism’s instrument. In this case, it should be challenged by means of a formal exposition of the nature and scope of the long-term public benefit higher education can be shown to deliver.

Ms I. B. Urquhart (Bye-Fellow and Pastoral Tutor of Homerton College):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, thank you for this opportunity to express my concern about the University’s response to the proposed changes in higher education funding. For a large part of my life I worked in a comprehensive school in Harlow, a mostly working-class town 35 miles down the M11 from Cambridge. For some of that time, I also taught on Local-Authority-funded courses for gifted pupils across the county of Essex.

I would therefore like to add my voice to those who have urged the University Council, in the light of increased tuition fees and savage cuts to the education budget, to ensure that university education is financially accessible to all and does not result in a crippling debt burden and financial dependence on students’ families. I understand that these concerns are widely shared in the University, and by the Council, and the Vice-Chancellor himself, and that currently intense discussions are being held about just how far the cost can be reduced for the lowest-income families (notionally, below £25,000). I welcome all moves that the University Council and its committees can make that will lead to greater social inclusion, and urge them to be ever more determined in their efforts to increase the ratio of maintained to privately educated students.

I think the increase in tuition fees is a deterrent to potential students from lower-income families. The government airily plays down the concerns expressed by young working-class people about the debts they will incur, saying that it’s not a problem because students don’t pay until they graduate and are earning above £21,000 (at the moment) and because the poorest students will be given financial assistance. But even if that were true, we now learn1 that the government proposes to give itself free rein to adjust the interest rates on the student loans as it sees fit. So prospective students have to be prepared to undertake a debt burden that could massively increase at the whim of the government of the day. Even individuals who are only moderately debt-averse are unlikely to want to accept that level of risk.

Although financial assistance is welcome for the poorest students, it cannot address the financial needs of many other potential students who will not qualify as charity cases but are certainly not among the comfortably off. For these potential students, debt-aversion is a real disincentive and needs to be taken seriously by all of us who are trying to encourage more lower-income students to our University. This aversion is not simply about the repayment of the tuition fees but stems from concerns by families and students themselves about the costs they incur while at university. While maintenance grants are relatively unaffected, working-class students are much more reluctant to place any kind of financial burden on their parents while they are at university, some even taking on paid work over the hours currently allowed, in order to prevent this happening. And for others, the fear of placing such a burden on their parents, and aware of other siblings coming along, prevents them applying in the first place, despite our reassurances.

Debt-aversion also includes the contemplation by potential students of the years after graduation – years when young employees on start-up wages are not yet earning enough to start paying back their loan, when parents often find themselves subsidizing their sons and daughters. Well-off parents are usually in the happy circumstances that they can afford to buy houses and cars for their grown-up children, can help pay off the loans, and can afford to house them rent-free while they seek the most suitable – and well-paid – work. This can also include supporting them in unpaid internships. For working-class graduates, the idea of working for nothing while your parents keep you is difficult to stomach when you know how much more of a sacrifice this is for them than for many other families. Some are likely, in these circumstances, either to, as Dr Disley pointed out, defer the opportunity to go on to postgraduate work, or to accept employment that may take much longer to achieve the exaggerated ‘guesstimates’ of graduate salaries waved around by government officials.

So, while I am encouraged by some of the moves being made by the University in this regard, I want to finish by stating my personal position: that I am implacably opposed to the neo-liberal ideology that is being forced upon the University as elsewhere in our public services. As we know, the university is a public good, and I believe that we should all pay for this through our taxes and that the government should fund it appropriately. I do not accept the policy of ‘fees for services’ that creates a divisive, not a ‘big’, society. I oppose any changes in the University that are driven by corporate ambition and that replace educational values with those of the market. And it is right for students and academics and unions to be vigilant in monitoring proposed cuts on these principles. I therefore urge the Vice-Chancellor and the University Council to exercise leadership in this matter by publicly challenging the assumption in the Browne Review that only marketization and the dubious concept of ‘choice’ by consumers, formerly known as students, can improve the quality of higher education. While we have to be financially realistic, there is a danger that our pragmatism simply means that we exhaust ourselves trying to make a bad idea work, rather than bending our will to replacing it with a better vision of the public university. So I would like to end with this question:

‘Will the Council commit to campaigning for the university as a public good, accessible to all, and free of government interference in its teaching and research agendas?’


Professor M. M. G. Lisboa (Professor of Portuguese in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and in St John’s College):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor, in a recent interview to Varsity, stated that his preferred modus operandi was not to make statements to the press but rather to attempt to exert influence within the corridors of power. With all due respect to the Vice-Chancellor, he could not be more mistaken.

This is a university which, statistically, is still the preserve of the middle and upper classes. In 2010, nationwide, almost two-thirds of universities recruited fewer students than expected from the poorest areas, with many admitting only a tiny fraction. In Cambridge, it was even worse. In the UK, approximately 90% of children attend state schools. In Cambridge, however, only 41.7% of students are from a state-school background.

Rightly or wrongly (and I think rightly), this University is perceived to be a more expensive institution in which to study than other universities. As of October 2012, any student wishing to go to university will be required to pay up to £9,000 in tuition fees. In Cambridge, specifically, to add insult to injury, College accommodation is not cheap, and in any case it is mostly unavailable after the first year. The cost of housing is extortionate, and, unlike in other universities, students are forbidden from having jobs during term time. Students obliged from now on, by financial con­siderations, to study in their ‘home university’ and to live at home, will in the case of Cambridge, which is a wealthy part of the country, come mainly from the better-off sectors of society.

And life, therefore, will become narrower and more elitist for all of us. I come from a very middle-class background, but Cambridge, regrettably, has already given me a working-class chip on my shoulder.

As the well-known slogan goes, ‘the personal is political’, and I will now, if I may, indulge briefly in the personal. I came to this country when I was fifteen. I went to a grammar school in south-east London, where I was one of only about three middle-class children in a school of about 600. The rest had parents who were either working class or unemployed. It taught me the useful skill of sneakiness: camouflaging into my surroundings. Luckily, if you say ‘cor blimey’ in a heavy Portuguese accent, no one can tell whether you are from the right social class to say ‘cor blimey’ or not. They just think you are weird.

My school set a pattern which has endured, namely that of a disproportionate number of Welshmen in my life (and I admit that I thought I would be speaking to a Welshman today). My wonderful headmaster was Welsh. So were my English teacher, and my History teacher, the latter of whom, some years later, smirked at the irony of the fact that I, ‘the most middle class student he had ever taught’, should be studying Marxist Theory for my Master’s degree. So, three Welshmen. But there are more. My husband is Welsh, and so, now, is my boss. The Vice-Chancellor has several hard acts to follow in this respect, and I very much hope he will not prove to be a disappointment.

In my school days, before Education Maintenance Allowance was introduced (and of course it’s now been abolished), some of my classmates had to leave school aged 16 because their parents would not (because they could not) support them through A Levels. So, no university for them, which was a shame, because, even outside Wales, the saying ‘college or colliery’, with slight modifications, applied. Mrs Thatcher, who came to power the year I came to Britain (no connection, I assure you), put paid to collieries, saying that Britain could buy cheaper coal from Poland. She might also have put an end to colleges as we understand them, since she famously said that this country did not need research, it could buy it from abroad (from anywhere abroad, not just Poland).

Politically, and in terms of education policy, we are heading back to those obscurantist times. Stating that, even with high tuition fees, access to university will not be restricted to the moneyed classes, is pure sophistry. To give but one example: even with tuition fees at just £3,000, some building societies have already refused mortgages to graduates because of their high levels of pre-existing debt. According to calculations, the only way in which in the future Cambridge could guarantee means-blind access would be if it succeeded in raising its capital endowment to £5 billion. I would offer to sell my body in the streets to help out, but I fear even that might not do the trick.

Clearly, it is unacceptable that our porters and our cleaners should subsidize the education of our children, as they do at the moment, through income tax. Equally clearly, their children should not be discouraged from going to university by the prospect of a lifetime of debt. In the world’s fifth economy, universities ought to be free and adequately funded by the government, and the government ought to recoup those costs by adequate and proportionate levels of income tax. I remain sceptical about the view that, were that to be implemented, everyone paying more than 40% in tax would leave the country. In Sweden, to give the example of one country where I have lived, the average tax rate is 60%. Levels of tax may go up as high as 90%, but even the horrible climate and long nights notwithstanding, the natives mostly stay put, they don’t all exit from Sweden.

This is the country’s top university and one of the top universities in the world. When the Vice-Chancellor and the Council speak, people listen. If this University believes in the principle of higher education based on the criterion of merit rather than means, our voice needs to be heard beyond the corridors of power, whether the Vice-Chancellor and the Council like it or not. It needs to be heard in public statements, in the press, including the tabloids, and anywhere else we might care to think of, or might not care to think of. By the same logic, in the face of what is happening to higher education at present, silence, or lame statements by the Council, mean consent.

Unless the Vice-Chancellor speaks out publicly, loudly, and repeatedly, soon we will all be teaching exclusively well-off natives of England (the Welsh and the Scottish will be fine as long as they stay at home). In England, we will soon have almost no students from poor backgrounds, nor even, in many cases, the offspring of the squeezed middle, nor, in view of laws being now debated, many foreigners. And when that happens, we will live in a very limited world, and we will all be damaged by this.

Professor S. J. Schaffer (Department of History and Philosophy of Science):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, discussion of the University’s response to proposed changes in higher education funding is an opportunity for optimism. I signed the request for this Discussion, moved both by the ferocity of the regime’s assault on the university community and also by the evidence of this community’s intelligence and energy manifested during the events of late last year. We can now reaffirm this community’s broad scope, which includes both contract and tenured staff, members both of Departments and of Colleges, teachers and administrators, scientists and poets, curators and programmers. Students are not our customers; colleagues elsewhere are not our competitors. Not. We can thus also articulate a coherent account of the principles that govern our community and we can actively contest proposed damage to the way in which this community works.

First, we obviously need clarity about precisely those proposals that do demand our response: but the regime’s approach to higher education funding is both slippery and alien.

Slipperiness: barely a year ago, the then shadow universities and skills secretary acknowledged the growing demand to study at university. Mr Willetts roundly condemned fines imposed on universities for widening student participation. He proudly proposed a plan for thousands of additional university student places. Barely one month ago, he signed a letter to HEFCE announcing a forthcoming cut in university places by 10,000 in 2012 and that universities will indeed face fines if they exceed this cap. ‘This,’ he claimed, ‘is not a significant reduction.’ He also told members of parliament that maximum fees would only be charged under ‘exceptional circumstances’, then omitted the phrase in his draft guidance to the Office for Fair Access. Now it may be unfair to convict this regime of slippage; but it is exceptionally easy. This is especially the case since the arguments and the policies have moved so far, and so fast, beyond any of the terms of the Browne Review: not least, since fee income proposed as complementary to public funding is now, though entirely inadequately, somehow to replace it.

On alienation: the proposed changes hinge on the notion that market performance is this community’s goal and this community’s cure. The letter sent on 20 December to HEFCE over the names of Mr Cable and Mr Willetts claims that the imminent cut in the HEFCE grant ‘will contribute to eliminating the structural deficit’ by 2015 and ‘will support a more diverse sector where the choices of informed students provide a constant drive towards high quality teaching and efficient use of resources’. Both these claims seem questionable.

Funds from the Business, Innnovation and Skills Department to universities will be cut by around £3 billion. The Office for Budget Responsibility calculates that by 2015 these new plans will increase the cost of student loans to the state by almost twice that much. The more expensive a course, the more the government will write off. The claim these changes will eliminate the structural deficit is based on the arbitrary exclusion from these calculations of any borrowing needed to pay for the loans. There will not be a saving to taxpayers, there will be no progressive changes in costs. We are left with an economically incoherent project.

Even if the alien thought that informed student choices would somehow improve teaching quality and resource efficiency be accepted, we must ask about the quality of the information to be provided to these choosers. Lord Browne himself judged that with respect to quality, ‘there is no measure that could function across the whole range of institutions and courses’. This is, as many previous speakers have already urged, a rigged market. In markets, customers pay more for what costs more: not in the proposed funding system. In markets, customers need high quality information: not in the proposed audit system. The Research Excellence Framework does not provide such a system, even though, or rather precisely because, of the regime’s commitment to this scheme.

Mr Cable and Mr Willetts tell HEFCE ‘to implement the REF over the next four years to recognize impact only from excellent research’. But, of course, the impact of excellent research on ‘scientific intellectual knowledge and academia’ is explicitly to be excluded from any measure. And the pernicious and pervasive effect of the project is evident. The prospect has been raised within this University of the abolition of paid sabbatical leave. The proposal is obviously intolerable in any research institution. But the argument against the proposal is not, as some have suggested, merely that it might somehow have a deleterious effect on the REF.

Response, as others have already pointed out, to these plans has too often been feeble and it has been disingenuous. The director-general of the Russell Group unambiguously praised the result of Parliament’s vote on tuition fees, and she judged the 20 December message from BIS to HEFCE as ‘a comparatively welcome outcome’. Characteristically, these statements use the alien language of market competition to describe our academic world: leading universities elsewhere are seen as ‘our competitors’; the Russell Group commits itself to reduce indirect costs of research and of postgraduate training. On whose behalf, with what legitimacy, are these statements and commitments being made? Council must either explain or distance itself from the Russell Group’s position.

One is often told that this issue hinges on a contrast between realism and fantasy. It does. In the real world, an entire range of this country’s world-class, because publicly funded institutions is under threat: museums, libraries, healthcare, forests, broadcasting, universities. What must be learnt from the last months’ experience is the realism of a wide alliance between these institutions. This University must show that it shares the interests and concerns with partners throughout the academic world, as colleagues and not as rivals. It must also clarify its enormous social, cultural, economic worth: the Royal Society’s report, issued just a year ago under the title The scientific century, admirably demonstrates these values and effectively challenges simple-minded appeals to utilitarianism and to the linear model of innovation. In work with students in the Natural Sciences Tripos, with researchers supported by external grants to make sense of the long track record of relations between sciences, culture, and politics, these lessons are clear. This University has the urgent need, it has the resources, it has the authority, amply to articulate a coherent and effective response to fantasy attacks on its real enterprises. This meeting of the governing body of the University is the right occasion to begin this articulation. I ask Council to state, in a measured and consistent manner, that these reductions in higher education funding are unacceptable. I ask Council to insist that the quality and the content of our courses be dictated by measured and consistent academic considerations, and not by a vague simulacrum of market price. I ask Council to set out how the University’s proper autonomy will be maintained, if not increased, in the face of these changes in the funding system. And I ask it, finally, to consult the entire University in formulating its policy at this moment of crisis.

Mr S. R. Wakeford (member of the Council, Chair of CUSU, and student at Trinity Hall):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, others have already demonstrated – and will continue doubtless to demonstrate – with abundant clarity the desperately damaging nature of the proposals drawn up by Lord Browne and then taken up with relish by the coalition Government. I see no need to repeat them.

There is obviously a distinction to be drawn between the national framework that Government sets for universities to operate in, and the decisions Cambridge makes as to how to operate within the constraints of that framework. Similarly, there is a distinction between the contribution that we, as a University, make to national debates about the funding of higher education, and the decisions we make about fee levels and student support arrangements here in Cambridge.

On the basis of such distinctions, we make local decisions ourselves, articulating principles (such as that of needs-blind admission1) only as needs arise, while our national contributions to public policy have traditionally been made through the usual channels – privately, behind the scenes to Government ministers and political parties, and only expressed in public in an anonymized form through umbrella organizations, principally the Russell Group and Universities UK (UUK). We have for too long shied away from properly harnessing the potential power of public, media, and political pressure.

As alluded to by previous speakers, the accountability and transparency of our interactions with organizations like the Russell Group and UUK is a serious issue – as is the internecine warfare among so-called university ‘mission groups’ – but I leave them to one side.

The point I wish to make is that those distinctions – between Cambridge and the wider world – do, obviously, sometimes hold, but in this context they crumble.

For example, enormous amounts of work are done within the University – both physically in Cambridge and throughout the rest of the country – on access, widening participation, and outreach projects. A very significant investment of time, effort, and resources is made by the University, by the Colleges, by CUSU, by individual staff, and by huge numbers of students in such activity. And the number of students who have come here across these two Discussions testifies to that same passion. But the return on that investment is not just seen here. In abstract terms, it is truly seen by society at large, but even in institutional terms it is seen by other universities across the sector, as – for example – young people from backgrounds under-represented in higher education, but with the aptitude to benefit from it, apply who otherwise would not. Our widening participation work does not only benefit Cambridge, and to benefit Cambridge is not the only reason we do it; you cannot separate the local and the national in this – they are intertangled, and we do both.

The Council has, in effect, now recognized the inadequacy of the distinctions I began with. The statement made in December, in attempting to speak in relation to Cambridge, succeeded in making points with pertinence to the HE sector as a whole. As we heard last time, it stressed ‘the public benefit which higher education delivers over and above the benefit to individual recipients of a university education’ – a benefit that the current Government in practice denies – and it argued that the Government should retain ‘a subject-weighted grant per student’, which they have now abolished across several subject areas.

I supported the making of the statement. But I have also always been clear that, in my personal view, we should go far further in presenting what is a perfectly legitimate view for us, as a University, to hold about the damage the Government is simultaneously doing to us, the HE sector, and society at large.

So what I say to the Council is that we need to lose our reticence and be clear. When we see the AimHigher programme being scrapped, Excellence East being scrapped – both of which fund and facilitate work we do, and thereby benefit us and others – we, as a University, need to do all that it is in our power to do to stop it. And when the Government advocates a higher education funding system predicated on universities like ours being forced, by cuts, to set fees at a different and higher rate than other universities, imposing a new perceptual barrier to those universities that already have trouble attracting a sufficiently socially diverse range of students, we need to do all that it is in our power to do to stop it.

We must not, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, let the knowledge that doing so would constitute a step into a national public debate dissuade us from it, because our University’s collective actions – embodied in our access, widening participation, and outreach work – are already, in themselves, statements that go beyond Cambridge. And we have in any case shown in the Council’s recent statement that we cannot make comment about Cambridge without necessarily commenting about public policy on HE as a whole.

My argument, therefore, is quite simple: the University of Cambridge has a respected, powerful reputation, which can allow us to wield very significant influence in the public sphere. We should not shy away from using it to protect what is our core business – our ability to educate and conduct research. The Council should make a habit of its recent public statement, and should become far more confident as it does so.

Dr Z. Svendsen (Research Fellow in Drama and Performance in the Faculty of English):

To summarize the challenge again, as follows: the coupling of a severe rise in tuition fees – with the effective ending of direct funding for teaching – heralds a shift to a service culture in universities. Subjects funded directly by fees will be designed around what future possible students think they might want, or will cease to exist. This is highly likely to lead to a shrinking not only of the diversity of subjects studied, but of topics within those subjects, as students approach their learning on a value-for-money basis. This brings with it a student body focused not on the present of studying, but on the future – of their career. This narrowing of the diversity of thought within universities will impact heavily on the wider culture (as has been detailed by colleagues), creating a society in which there is no major institution that embodies value outside the market. Our claim as academics to believe in non-quantifiable forms of value will appear empty rhetoric when the university itself operates on a monetary basis.

I have worked for ten years in the theatre profession. The arts and humanities in universities now form the well-spring for those who go into what New Labour termed the ‘creative industries’ – the university is significant in fostering the ability of the individuals in that sphere to operate beyond instrumental objectives. I have experienced and studied the instrumentalizing of the arts, economically and socially. In response to Thatcher, and then to New Labour branding, theatre learnt how to speak the language of instrumentality, in particular of economic return. The economic case for theatre subsidy was won. What did it do for us? The cuts still came and we now find we no longer have a language for our own values, either.

There has never been a more serious threat to the independent critical thinking that is vital both to culture and to democracy. The university – and the arts and humanities in particular – offers the last place in our culture to enshrine that independence. And if Cambridge cannot fight this battle on principle, what hope is there for less prestigious universities?

So I would like to know what sort of scenario-planning is being done by the Council to understand the impacts of the cultural shift outlined in the Browne Review, not only on the University, but also on the wider culture. I would like to know what measures – such as are possible – are being put in place to safeguard intellectual freedom in the coming monetized system.

Mr D. M. K. Benjamin (member of Trinity College and graduate student in the Faculty of English) (read by Miss A. R. Gilligan):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, it is just that at this time, in this place, we are discussing the Browne Review and the University’s response to it. It has been remarked that this level of interest in a Discussion of a topic of interest to the University is unprecedented. As many comments have indicated, the urgency of the situation is unprecedented, with respect to the effects the Browne Review will have on this University, and on higher and further education in the country as a whole.

The proceedings issued from a request for a Discussion made by over 150 members of Regent House. The democratic structures of this University give voice to members of Regent House – at least, the democratic structures of the University allow members of Regent House to have voice in this room, at this time, in this place.

It is probably unnecessary to point out that the mobilization of members of Regent House was immediately precipitated by the actions of students in the building directly behind us. For eleven days students occupied the Old Schools Combination Room. The Combination Room became, for those days, an open and democratic educational and political space, in which perhaps 1,000 students participated. Hundreds of academics supported the occupation of Old Schools and began organizing an academic campaign against cuts to higher education in the democratic space created by the occupation.

The Vice-Chancellor indicated that he would not reply to the demands of the occupiers while the occupation was ongoing. I will not dispute the justice of that decision here. But at this time, in this place, when the Discussion has been called by members of Regent House, I would ask Council: Would it not be just for the University to reply now to the demands of the occupation that precipitated this Discussion?

The demands of the occupiers were as follows:1

1. That the University completely oppose the increase in fees, fight against it, and fight against all cuts to education, and use its influence to oppose the spending review’s threat to education, welfare, health, and other public services.

2. That the University use its influence to fight for free education for all.

3. That the University acknowledge and take steps to combat the systemic inequality of access to this elitist institution and the dangers of its intensification posed by the scrapping of EMA, a rise in tuition fees, and removal of programmes such as AimHigher.

4. That the University declare it will never privatize.

5. That the University commit to ensure the autonomy of education from corporate interests.

6. That the University recognize UCU (University and College Union). We urge postgraduates, academics, and all university staff to unionize.

I ask the Council, as a member of the University with the right to speak in this venue: What is the Council’s response to the substance of these demands? Does the Council find them just, and will the Council move towards using its influence to fight for a free education, fight the public sector cuts, combat systematic inequality, and resist privatization and corporatization?

Moving on from the justice of the occupying students’ demands, a question that has come up in this Discussion is the role the University should play in the national discourse on education. The Vice-Chancellor indicated in an interview with Varsity that making pronouncements to the media was not his preferred method of influence.2 It is the Vice-Chancellor’s prerogative to do what he sees fit, but I ask the Council whether some public role for the University in the national debate on this topic is not appropriate.

I hope the Council does not see the University as a Board of Directors would see a large corporation – taking actions based only on maximizing profit and thinking only with the local interests of the University in mind. That would be an injustice to the very idea of the University as a public institution, which I hold dear, and which I hope the Council does as well. In light of the University’s status as a leading worldwide institution, in light of its status as a bastion of privilege within the United Kingdom, and in light of its deep ties to the halls of power, the University has a unique position with respect to further education and a unique role in influencing its future. I ask the Council how the University understands this responsibility. It is my opinion that it would be unjust for the University to do anything other than take a strong position in defence of education and against the government’s attacks on all public institutions in this country. It would be an unjust abrogation of the University’s privilege and responsibility. If the Council does not share my opinion, I ask what responsibility the Council does believe the University has to the further and higher education sector, and to the nation and the world in which it operates.

To conclude, I would like to address the justice of this venue, this democratic institution, this time, and this place.

Members of the Council who attended the first iteration of this Discussion will have noticed that the Vice-Chancellor did not point to a single woman who raised her hand to speak. Some women’s remarks were read and appear in the Reporter, but a man had to put his hand up for each woman’s voice to be heard. I ask the Council: Is this not disturbing? Is the University committed to fighting gender inequality and how does it intend to do that? We cannot respond to the Browne Review with any justice if the room in which we are discussing it only privileges male voices, especially as the public sector cuts fall disproportionately on women.3 How is the Council working to fight the gender imbalance among the Fellowship and the ‘soft misogyny’ that pervades the University?

Miss A. R. Gilligan (graduate student in the Depart­ment of Earth Sciences):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I wish to briefly address the issue of the impact of the cuts in higher education in the sciences. While it seems that STEM subjects will not be decimated to the same degree as arts and humanities, they still face significant problems.

Last year, when I was applying for a Ph.D. place, funding from the Natural Environmental Research Council, the body which awards studentships in Earth Sciences, was drastically cut, halving the number of places available. This meant at Cambridge University, the premier institution in the country for Earth Sciences, only four funded places were available from this body. Thankfully, there were not only four Ph.D. students starting in the Earth Sciences Department this year, but twelve. However, this has only been possible, in a large part, due to funding from private companies. This means research groups who are able to obtain funding from such companies were able to offer places, whereas those unable to do so could not, and that means that research in those areas could not be pursued.

This is not a problem limited to Ph.D. funding for Earth Sciences, but a problem that is fundamental across the sciences. It means that there is a dependence on private companies for funding, meaning that research, in general, is geared towards the interests of such companies, rather than what scientific questions are most interesting to pursue. This marketization of scientific research and its subservience to corporate interest is something that will only get worse under the proposed changes in higher education.

Only this morning, on the Today programme, when asked whether Charles Darwin, a distinguished alumnus of this University, whose vital contribution to the scientific community cannot be disputed, would have received funding, the response from both commentators was a resounding no. In their view, this was because the nature of the funding structure for scientific research was completely biased towards those areas in which immediate profitable gains can be made. This would, therefore, mean that research such as Darwin’s, which took over thirty years to reach its conclusion, would not be countenanced. This means that vital research, such as developing the theory of evolution, would not be undertaken, and are not. They concluded by noting that as Darwin had a significant personal fortune that, perhaps, the lack of funding would not have prevented him from pursuing his research.

I would, therefore, like to ask Council what is the University going to do to ensure that all those who wish to pursue research, in any field, and do not possess considerable personal wealth, are able to do so without being limited by having to ensure that their research has immediate profitable gains to be made, particularly in light of the proposed changes in higher education funding?

Finally I would like to comment on the impact of funding changes on access. I attended a state school in the north of England. From my school in the last fifteen years only two students have attended either Oxford or Cambridge, despite large numbers of students achieving grades which would be accepted by these institutions. Having started my undergraduate degree in 2006, I was in the first cohort of students to be charged ‘top-up’ fees. One consequence of this increased burden of debt was that students in my year achieving three As at the end of secondary school did not apply to university. Further increasing fees will drive larger numbers of students away from undertaking further study. If Cambridge is to charge higher fees than other institutions, creating a market in which institution to attend, I would speculate that in fifteen years’ time, no students from my secondary school will have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge.

A consequence of increasing fees will mean that Cambridge will continue to miss out on talented and able students, and the valuable attempts to increase access for students from state schools over the last few years will be reversed. Cambridge University will only be able to reverse the disparity in access for those from state schools if it rejects the government’s plans for increases in fees, and fights for free education, and for reversal of the cuts that we all face. Cambridge should use its influence on a national scale to fight for other universities to do similar things, which would reject the increases in fees, reject the government’s cuts. And I would like to ask Council what proposal the Vice-Chancellor is going to take to the Universities UK meeting later this month.

Ms P. Duff (undergraduate student at Lucy Cavendish College, reading Archaeology and Anthropology) (read by the Junior Proctor, Dr J. Spencer):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, we have to take into account the realities of public monies available and also the conflicting demands upon these funds from health, and social services, as well as education. I believe an alternative path should be found.

I have simply one question: we are fortunate in having, in this University, some of the finest minds in the country. Will the University Council take advantage of this resource and seek to formulate an alternative and more palatable proposal to offer to our Government regarding the restructuring of our economy – one that does not involve the making of such drastic cuts?

Dr J. P. Skittrall (member of Wolfson College) (read by the Senior Proctor, Mr J. A. Trevithick):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, it was pleasing to see the Vice-Chancellor in the chair in person two weeks ago; I apologize that I am unable today to be here in person to deliver my remarks.

At the Discussion on top-up fees on 19 October 2004,1 I remarked on the possibility that ‘if, for example, the [fee] amount were increased in 2010 beyond £10,000 (say), the Regent House would have no automatic power to prevent students from being charged this amount beyond the 50-member Grace’. The increase has (more or less) come to pass; judging by the number of signatories on the request for this Discussion, the Council would do well to take note of the 50-member Grace possibility.

It is clear that increasing fees will increase the overall financial burden upon students. If it does not (that is, if bursaries are increased to cancel out the effect of a fee increase), then all we are doing is redistributing money amongst students, which brings a whole new meaning to the idea of universities as a force for social mobility, not to mention that there would be no net financial benefit for this University.

The question I feel we ought to address, then, is whether increasing the financial burden upon students will put students off applying and affect the calibre of students coming through our door. Of course anybody speaking officially for the University must say that there will be no negative effects upon access. If he or she were to do otherwise, the press would be over our admissions procedures faster than you can say ‘government interference’.

(As an aside, it is interesting to see how successive governments have been able to change this aspect of university funding from a question of government getting an opportunity to intervene in return for government funding, to one of the government getting an opportunity to intervene in return for graciously allowing universities to take somebody else’s money, with those negotiations disenfranchizing students as mere bystanders. If I were ever treading the corridors of Whitehall, I would ponder this.)

But I do not speak officially for the University, and I can suggest there will be an impact on access, which will be bad for us all. I can also point to a specific case close to my own experience where the effect could be substantial. I am now on Cambridge’s small graduate-entry medicine course, one for which fees have to be paid in advance because all entrants already have a first degree. (Although the Browne report advocated a complete abolition of up-front fees, I do not think that this has, at least yet, been implemented, although I should welcome correction.) The nature of the competition for the course is stiff, and it would be fair to say that all entrants have effectively turned down more lucrative career options. But with a few thousand pound fee increase, some would not be here now, as they would be unable to meet the financial commitments for the course. The calibre of student would therefore have been affected (assuming effective admissions procedures). The cost of the course is multi-factorial and it is utterly unclear at present what the situation will be for future applicants.

Coupled to the subject of medicine, we are now approaching a fee level where differential lengths of courses may well have an impact upon student course preference, and I should be very gratified to see some serious consideration of this matter. The only consideration of this issue in the Browne report is under the heading ‘Public investment will be targeted on the teaching of priority subjects’ – a heading that is a worry in itself, and addresses the university, not the student, side of this equation. I think this University should be able to produce a better consideration of the matter.

So what do I advocate? Regrettably, as is often the case with Cambridge ‘democracy’, we are trying to inspect a ship that has likely already sailed, and is certainly past casting off. I originally intended to say that although I would advocate being radical and choosing not to charge the highest fee amount, I suspect within these walls such a position would be considered pathognomic of being a Young Man in a Hurry, and that the stomach for such action is lacking. Although I may still be correct, nonetheless having listened to the remarks already made in this Discussion, I would at least ask people to consider whether the costs of not charging the highest fee amount might not be offset by the positive publicity of the statement that we are more interested in good students than in their money – even if the reduction from the full fee amount is relatively small by the standards of today’s fees. Such a policy may have the additional benefit of releasing other universities from the feeling of having to charge high fees in order to ensure their courses did not appear of poor quality.

If not charging the highest fee amount is too radical, then it is back to tinkering around the edges, trying to make the prospect of crippling fees not look too bad, and hoping that our world-class position will mean the results are not too bad, even if other universities fare worse. I wish we could manage better, and fear that if we do not, then other universities will be left to bear the consequences of our reticence.

Finally, though, I should like to comment on one aspect of the University’s response to the Browne report. I was left uneasy by the overall thrust of the Proctors’ statement regarding the occupation of the University Combination Room, and especially by the final sentence: ‘The Proctors expect and depend on all members of the University, junior and senior and alumni, to respect the Regulations governing University discipline at all times, not least because the Regulations underpin freedom of speech.’ I am not saying that I supported that occupation, or that a repeat would be a good idea. I realize that the Proctors found themselves in a difficult and sensitive situation, and thank them for their work in handling it. However, I worry the Proctors have here fallen into the trap of looking at the actions of individuals in causing an adverse event, without considering whether the system made the overall event likely. If a Discussion with the relative lateness of this one, attended by few students despite their clear willingness to make their opinions known on the matters concerned, or indeed if the many other Discussions over the past few years unknown to most members of the University and eschewed by the then Vice-Chancellor, represent the way in which the Regulations underpin freedom of speech, then there is some work to do.

Mr D. J. Goode (Faculty of Divinity):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak today as Vice-President of the Cambridge University and College Union (Cambridge UCU).

The University and College Union has consistently opposed tuition fees. Rather than charge students for their education, UCU would charge the large employers who benefit from the plentiful supply of graduates through a Business Education Tax.1 This innovative, practical, and radical approach would produce more money for higher education than the current tuition fee scheme, and cost less to administer.

UCU believes that while employers benefit enormously from the plentiful supply of graduates, they will not willingly contribute to the infrastructure that creates this supply. Furthermore, with corporate taxation levels lower in the UK than in other comparable economies, and a collection shortfall of £8 billion a year, UCU believes that scope exists for a modest increase in their tax burden in order to directly support higher education.

This is not some crazed left-wing ideology, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor. In other areas of the public realm, business levies can be used to overcome the private sector’s unwillingness to pay for the services from which it benefits. The most striking recent example is that set by London Mayor Boris Johnson (possibly crazed, but definitely not left-wing), who is levying a business tax of two pence in the pound to raise £4.1 billion to help the Crossrail project.2

A one penny in the pound increase in main rate corporation tax would raise around £800 million a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Green Budget 2010.3 Increasing the rate to the G7 average of 32.87 per cent, and hypothecating the extra revenue, would generate almost £3.9 billion for higher education – more than enough, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, to abolish all university tuition fees.

This move would leave unchanged, at 21 per cent, the small companies’ rate, and still leave UK main corporation tax rate below that of France, the United States, and Japan.4

The UCU favours tax breaks for the Business Education Tax for companies who fund their employees to return to education to learn new skills, creating a virtuous cycle of positive practice, encouraged by an activist state. UCU also believes that proactive steps are required to close the £8 billion tax gap5 between what corporations should pay and what they actually do pay.

To address the need to close the gap between what the UK spends on higher education and what other countries spend, UCU believes that as collection is improved a fund should be set aside for education. Improving collection from companies to just 10 per cent of the amount presently underpaid, would bring in an extra £800 million a year – enough to fund as many as 100,000 students.

UCU believes, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, that a Business Education Tax would enable the UK to:

make Home students’ access to higher education free

reduce student debt and re-incentivize participation

reduce the cost to taxpayers of servicing student loans

increase the amount available for universities to invest

increase the engagement of the corporate sector with higher education

promote ‘return to learning’ schemes in the private sector in return for tax breaks

guarantee the plentiful supply of graduates our economy requires

help bridge the gap between UK investment and that of our competitors

leave the UK with a competitive corporate tax structure and protect small businesses from a tax increase, and

provide a powerful incentive for government to collect all unpaid corporation tax.

All of which seem to me, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, to be a very good thing.

Mr J. C. Wills (member of King’s College, KCSU, CUSU, and member of Cambridge Defend Education):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I’d like to move from the lofty heights of a discourse around the privileging of functions of knowledge, and even knowledge of functions of privilege, and one-on-one supervisions, and the very important points that people have been raising about academic job cuts, and so on and so forth, and move to some other practical aspects that these cuts are going to bring in within our university experience, and especially in the relation of the University to the town here. I think one of the very important aspects of this that isn’t being analysed quite to the level that we’d like it to be is the effect on non-academic staff that these cuts are going to have. Unfortunately, these people are not very well represented here, so I’m going to do my best to outline a possible trajectory that this will mean for some of these staff.

After things like merging of Departments and departmental cuts when receptionists, when cleaners – lots of non-academic staff are going to lose their jobs, the standard trajectory that we actually see, in relation to other cuts within public services, as well as higher education, is that people can’t afford the money to live in central Cambridge – they move to the outside of the town. They go to the job centre and they’re not quite as lucky as the Vice-Chancellor, and after three refusals of jobs they have their benefits cut. (With the refusals of jobs, the surrounding aspects of that refusal are irrelevant.) For example, many people will have to move outside of town – 30 bus services are being cut within Cambridge this month and the train is pretty expensive. Now, the Cambridge to London train is a £5,000 year-long season ticket. For people to afford to get to their job and actually end up making more money at the end of it, then the amount that they’re getting from benefits can be very problematic.

When we bring into this picture the effects that the change from RPI to CPI on public sector pensions is going to have (that’s retail price index to consumer price index; consumer price index being on average about one to one-and-a-half per cent lower than retail price index), and year on year, with this change that’s happening in April, that’s going to mean up to 15 or 20 per cent realterm cut in people’s pensions. And that’s from money that they’ve already paid in, that’s money that’s being stolen from them, in essence, I think.

All of this is going to mean that many of the people who currently are treasured by the University as active members of staff are going to be left out on a limb. Now, in Cambridge, these are people whose children are studying at our schools here, and could well try to come to university here, and throughout the country, these are the people who have kids who we are hoping will be able to come to an institution like this. When we again put this in the perspective of cuts to the education budget more generally, the cut to EMA most specifically, we can see that lots of these kids as well aren’t going to have enough money to get into town to go to the good schools, and access again will be restricted. So here I see a bit of a disjuncture around the University’s rhetoric around access, which it clearly supports – and it supports the activities of the kind of university quangos and CUSU, as well as having its own access initiatives. But this doesn’t really seem to be backed up, to me, by its stance on the cuts. Of course, we should not forget that in Cambridgeshire, we’re going to be seeing, now, 3% cuts to sixth forms, year on year, not tied to inflation, which means about a 25% cut over the next four years. Again, how many students from Long Road do we really expect to be coming to this University in the next couple of years? Also, these are children not just of non-academic staff here, but academic staff.

So I’d like to ask the Council why it doesn’t, for example, sign up to Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts and other organizations that are actively opposing the cuts in the County Council, City Council, and the government cuts to education. We’ve seen a 33% cut in community and youth services provision from the County Council this year alone, especially in cuts to disabled students – again, the most disadvantaged in society.

So, I’d like to sum up by saying that we shouldn’t just be sitting around here waiting for the Council to analyse our contributions and remind us how treasured we all are, but actively, ourselves, be engaging in these sorts of campaigns. While we wait for the institutional response, we should all go out and engage with initiatives like Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts, the big demonstration on 12 February that’s happening in central Cambridge that we should all be at, and the lobby of the County Council that’s specific to education cuts on 15 February. And I’ll leave it there. I think underpinning our analysis is an understanding that what we’re seeing is a joined-up attack on many different sectors, and this affects the University cyclically much further down the line, as do the kind of cuts that we’re going to see, I think, through the PRC document that was leaked recently. If we analyse that sort of a joined-up attack, I think in response we should be acting in a more concerted way, and not just by analysing the interconnectivity of everything in our seminars, but actively getting out there on the streets.

Dr S. J. Cowley:

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am a member of DAMTP. Since January 2007, I have also been a member of the Council and, as such, I am a charity trustee of the University (with a duty to ensure that the charity is and will remain solvent).1 It may also be helpful to note that I am a member of the University’s Resource Management Committee.

Like other speakers in this Discussion, and like many other members of the University (including many other members of the Council), I find the coalition’s changes to the funding, or should I say, lack of funding, of higher education depressing, damaging, and disastrous (and with children of 12 and 14, for my own family the changes are going to be expensive, excessive, and exorbitant).

If we look back over what has already happened, points have been raised about what the University, and/or the Council, might have done differently. More importantly, if we look forward, there are a number of short-term issues facing the University, not the least what level of student fee to set: and the Council will be discussing this issue in two weeks’ time on 14 February.

Let me start by looking back. Whatever others may feel, I believe that the decisions taken by the University (even if I may not have been in lock-step with absolutely all of them), were made in good faith and with the best of intentions. To be clear, I for one do not want to adopt a US funding model. With hindsight, some actions by the University, and others, may have been less than optimal: whether they concern communications, the conduct of a minority on some demonstrations, or submissions to the Browne Review. Regarding the latter, Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, has put it rather pertinently:2

Perhaps in all this there is one lesson for the sector: the science lobby limited the damage with a public display of unity. The same cannot be said of our universities. Some hard lessons need to be learned, especially about the merits of providing the Treasury with funding ‘solutions’ on a plate. These solutions were never going to deliver additional funding: they were always going to lead to the substitution of public investment by private contributions on an unprecedented scale.

Two weeks ago, Gill Evans warned of the ‘dangerousness of short memories in higher education politics’. Dearing was set up before an election, reported after, with the result that the new government screwed HE (e.g. with the consequence that between 2000 and 2008 the UK went from the third-highest graduation rate among OECD countries to fifteenth place). Browne was set up before an election, reported after, with the result that a new government screwed HE, and in doing so will screw the economy. What I regret is not kicking up a fuss before the election. And while this may have been a high-risk strategy for the University (although not just for the University, since I chickened out of a BBC interview as well), matters could hardly have been worse than they are today.

The trouble is now that we are where we are. We can, and should, continue to demonstrate, lobby about the forthcoming White Paper, draw up a common set of principles, and ensure that our access activities are as effective as they can be (while recognizing the great efforts already made by many members of staff in the wider Collegiate University, as referred to last time). This may have an effect in the medium term, but we have to make a decision about fees in the next few weeks. The bottom line is: do we charge £6,000, £9,000, or somewhere in between? And whatever we charge, how do we continue to widen access in all subjects to talented students from all sections of the population?

A third question, that concerns a number of Regents, is the level of funding for arts, humanities, and social sciences. As the Head of the School of Arts and Humanities has already observed: ‘Under Lord Browne’s proposals, the per capita teaching grant would be reduced by an identical amount for each subject’ and, as the PVC for Planning and Resources has noted, ‘there is nothing in the new funding arrangements that will disproportionately affect the arts and humanities, and even if there were so, Cambridge . . . allocate[s] funding based on well-considered academic and strategic plans’. Further, on 12 January, the Resource Management Committee endorsed a principle proposed by the PVC for Planning and Resources that:

The University is committed to a broad coverage of disciplines across the arts and sciences, and some level of cross-subsidy between Schools is essential in order to ensure continuity of operation through changing economic environments.

The University values a broad range of disciplines, and the arts schools are not at a greater risk than others. However, the University has to be in the black, and the uncomfortable question that needs to be answered is £6,000, £9,000, or somewhere in between.

At the end of the last Council meeting, the Deputy Chairman asked me what the University would do if OFFA only allowed us to charge a fee of £6,000, say, because we failed to achieve the necessary access benchmarks. That was a sobering question. The difference between a £6,000 fee and a £9,000 fee is very roughly about £30m a year (at steady state). The PVC for Planning and Resources noted a fortnight ago that: ‘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 . . . the same as the old regime would have delivered had the government spending cuts not intervened’. So to stand still, the argument put forward is that we need to charge £9,000. If we charge £6,000 then, in present-day money, we need to find £30m cuts, or an extra £30m income. If it’s cuts, then with a fee of £6,000 we might dispense with bursaries; that would produce a saving of about £7m, leaving £23m to find. Very crudely that’s well over 200 professors, or something just short of 450 lecturers, or just over half the College fee, or the chest funding either for the whole of the School of Technology or for three-quarters of the Unified Administrative Service, or the subsidy for 23 University Centres (but we only have one) or for 115 bus services (but again we only have one). Some might retort that the University is rich. In reserves it has somewhere between £150m and £200m (depending on what you count), which might last something less than ten years if we only charge £6,000 and make no cuts. And what do we do once the reserves have been exhausted? Do we cast our eyes over the Fitzwilliam Museum and sign up to eBay?

Governments have a leeway that the University does not have: they (or at least their economists) can cut the apple pie into three halves (at least in the medium term). The University has an apple pie with two halves, and is left with a choice: significant, painful cuts, £9,000, and/or a very ambitious income-raising campaign.

Reference has been made to the initial paper on Organizational and Financial Efficiency. There are savings that can be made, e.g. five years ago, Biological Sciences made savings by rationalizing technician support, and similar savings probably exist elsewhere in the University. Whether, or which of, these cuts can go ahead depends on income. There will also be arguments over priorities (for me, supervisions and the collegiate structure are at the top of my preservation list, and I would keep two professors in preference to a bus service). However, we would be deluding ourselves if we did not recognize that £20m–£30m of cuts would make it very difficult to preserve key aspects of the University.

I am left with the unpalatable conclusion that the University should set a fee to compensate for the loss of income from the spending cuts imposed by both the last and the current government. Preliminary calculations suggest that that is £9,000, but if refined calculations indicate less, then we should charge less. I do not buy the argument, which I have heard round the University, that we should charge the maximum whatever, on the basis that those that can pay should pay. As Susan Cooper’s recent article in the Oxford Magazine notes, an academic whose career path leads to the top of the Oxford University lecturer scale will not pay off their loan. What about teachers, or other lower-paid professionals? Will students really want to join a profession where they will still be paying off their loans when their children start university?

Further, one of the difficulties Oxbridge face with widening participation is that minorities already disproportionally apply for the most competitive courses, i.e. mainly those leading to higher-paid professions such as law and medicine. The larger the headline fee, the more likely is the flight to such courses and professions and, as Jonathan Black argues in the same issue of the Oxford Magazine, the greater the reduction in social mobility.

So I am now close to the position of the White Queen, who in her youth believed six impossible things before breakfast, in that I have argued both for and against a fee of £9,000. Yes, I believe that a fee of £9,000 will damage access, it’ll damage social mobility, and the standard of graduate going into key professions such as teaching; it is those who suggest otherwise who are still in their youth (and maybe have two brains and believe twelve impossible things before breakfast). However, from my perspective, if the University is to last for another 20 years, let alone another 800 years, then it will have to set a fee close to £9,000 unless it can significantly raise income.

So let me finish with an ‘impossible’ thought by taking a leaf out of the Browne report, where it is recommended that graduates be encouraged to make voluntary tax-deductible payments to their chosen institution.

Suppose that we charged less than £9,000, say £8,000, and appealed to parents rather than graduates. £800 voluntarily given by a standard-rate tax-payer would be worth £1,000 to the University. £1,066 voluntarily given by a higher-rate tax-payer would be worth £1,333 to the University, but would only cost the giver £800 once a tax refund had been claimed; while the bonus £333 might compensate for those less well-off parents who could not afford to give. If our students’ parents were as public-spirited as many Egyptians seem to be, the students and parents would win, the University would win, and for once the government would be screwed.