Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6218

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Vol cxli No 22

pp. 609–632

Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Lynn Gladden was presiding, with the Registrary, the Proctors, two Pro-Proctors, and twenty other persons present.

The following topic of concern was discussed:

The failure to allow Discussion of Council’s case for charging the maximum undergraduate tuition fee from 2012/13 (Reporter, 2010–11, p. 537).

Professor J. M. Rallison (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the Guidance from the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to higher education institutions appeared on the web this morning ( It requires that any institution that wishes to charge an undergraduate fee in excess of £6,000 must submit an access agreement to OFFA by 19 April.

In proposing a fee of £9,000, the Council indicated that the Regent House should be given the opportunity of confirming, by ballot, that it supports the Council’s proposal. If the Council had published a Report followed by a Discussion, Notice, and Grace, then the OFFA timetable could not have been met: ballot papers could not have been distributed during Term. For that reason, a web forum was established in early February to enable members of the Regent House to express their views. The ballot will be completed on 25 March.

Numerous admissions events, including Oxford and Cambridge conferences, take place during the Easter vacation. It is important that Cambridge is able to give a clear indication of its plans for fees and related student support at such events so that prospective students know where they stand.

Professor G. R. Evans (Emeritus Professor of Medieval and Intellectual History):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, in the forthcoming ballot, Cambridge can go with the presumption created by its existing regulation,1 namely that it will always charge the Higher Amount. That presumably remains the position if the Non Placets carry the day. Or, if the vote is Placet and approval is:

given to the Council’s intention to propose an access agreement to the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education, for his approval, pursuant to regulation 12 for University Composition Fees (Statutes and Ordinances 2010, p. 160),

Cambridge will be charging the Higher Amount. Hobson’s choice.

Either outcome takes Cambridge into the additional area of restriction created by the requirement to ‘agree’ an access agreement with OFFA if a fee greater than the Lower Amount of £6,000 is set.

In the OFFA guidance published this morning (‘How to produce an access agreement for 2012–13’),2 there are at last some details. As term ends and before it begins again, universities are expected to consult with students, sending in their proposed ‘agreement’ by (now) 19 April. All this effort is for a one-year agreement only. It includes setting our ‘fee levels and the estimated number of students’ for each course and stating whether it is planned to apply annual increases in line with government ‘permitted rises’ to ‘maintain their value in real terms’. So it won’t be as low as £9,000 for long. Some of us remember inflation rises after the last national financial collapse hitting considerable heights.

Cambridge will be expected to spend 30% of the £3,000 per student which represents the difference between £6,000 and £9,000 not on teaching the paying student, but on widening access. Remember, voter, that when Willetts claims ‘we are putting the funding in the hands of students’,3 he has it in mind that ‘there is a reserve power to make regulations to require a prescribed proportion of tuition income to be devoted to access activities’.4 So each student paying Cambridge’s £9,000 is to have part of it levied to pay for widening participation. Widening participation is a good cause, no denying. But is it fair to add to a lifetime’s debt for the individual to meet the political objectives of a Government manifestly in a hole, and still digging?

If Cambridge is to take what the Notice calls a ‘responsible’ decision, the Regent House needs to be clear about ‘the context of recent national policy’ before it marks its ballot papers. The remainder of my remarks constitute an attempt to provide, in brief, a historical note of the ‘context’ the Notice refers to.

In November, BIS produced an interim impact assessment entitled Urgent reforms to higher education funding and student finance. Admitting that its projections were in many respects speculative, it opted (Option 4b) for a Higher Amount of £9,000 for student tuition fees and a Lower Amount of £6,000, in the apparent confidence that an average of about £7,000 or a little more would emerge, as universities tried to make up for the loss of almost all their public funding. In November 2010, Parliament galloped through the decision to adjust the Lower and Higher Amounts for student tuition fees to £6,000 and £9,000 respectively.5

Alarmed by the New Year at indications that most universities were going to charge the Higher Amount and the cost to the tax-payer would become unacceptable (and cost more than simply continuing with the public funding of higher education), the Government threatened that universities would not be ‘allowed’ to set fees at the Higher Amount without permission. Then in late February, speaking at a conference on widening participation, OFFA’s Director revealed that Government and its advisers had misunderstood the law. OFFA did not have the necessary legal powers. ‘Now the government is in some difficulty in limiting expenditure to the levels that the Treasury has assumed,’6 he said. The Minister’s guidance letter to the Director of OFFA was delayed until 10 February so as to make the necessary amendments.7 You could almost hear the grinding of the apparatchiks’ dentures. The letter of Guidance threatens to change the law:

if the sector as a whole appeared to be clustering their charges at the upper end of what is legally possible, . . . we will have to reconsider what powers are available, including changes to legislation, to ensure that there is differentiation in charges.8

At the Ron Dearing Conference on 17 February,9 the struggle with that inconvenient restriction in the law kept breaking the surface in Willetts’ speech:

The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act made it clear that universities control admissions, not the Government – by preventing the Secretary of State from interfering by setting conditions for HEFCE grants.

And the 2004 Higher Education Act stands in the way, too, for it ‘requires the Director of Fair Access to respect the autonomy of institutions with regard to admission of students’.

In the Commons, Willetts was called to task for appearing to seek to impose social-engineering quotas on university admissions through the OFFA agreements with individual universities:

Mr Willetts: We in the coalition Government do not believe in quotas . . . They would be not only undesirable but illegal because the autonomy of universities in running their own admissions arrangements has legal protection.10

But of course they can change the law.

Student protests on a substantial scale began in the autumn, and are likely to continue, as Cambridge saw on 25 February when the police entered King’s College without its permission, and made arrests.11 Meanwhile, the legislation governing freedom of speech on campus, which dates from the Education (No.2) Act 1986 s.43, urgently needs revisiting. Another one for legislative adjustment?

On 25 February, David Willetts announced to the Universities UK Spring Conference that the publication of the White Paper, which was to give us all a chance to discuss the detail of the forthcoming legislative change, is to be kicked into the long grass.12 So the optimism of the Council’s Notice that ‘the Government will be issuing a White Paper later this year, possibly in March’, is as misplaced as its belief that OFFA’s deadline would be the end of this month.

Piecemeal legislation is being slipped through, though, and fast. The Education Bill published on 26 January contained a final clause allowing interest rates on student loans to rise at ministerial discretion in future, by amending the power given to the Secretary of State in section 22(4) of Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 to make regulations setting interest rates. The Public Bodies Bill, a little ahead in the queue, should ensure a considerable widening of Ministerial discretion.

Another White Paper is promised:

The Government will publish its overarching public services White Paper shortly . . . we . . . want to make it easier for new and alternative providers to enter the new system – and there are clear ways in which we are doing so.13

He’s been lobbied:

by various existing education providers who . . . have argued passionately for the right to offer externally-validated degrees to local people with limited existing access to higher education.14

So one foresees changes to the law’s restrictions on the grant of degree-awarding powers and the use of university title coming in, not in the White Paper now deferred, but another one, mysteriously easier to draft straight away. There is press coverage on all that today, too.15

The Council ‘regrets’ the ‘compressed timetable’. Why accept it when the Government itself cannot stick to a promised date? The ‘responsible’ thing might be for Cambridge to insist on a revised order of proceeding, with the necessary legislation passed and brought into force, or at least visible as published proposals, before it will countenance by any action of its own, the piecemeal scramble of untidy adjustments going on, to the accompaniment of the Minister’s cry in the House of ‘not panicking; we’re not panicking!’16


Dr J. P. Skittrall (member of Wolfson College):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, on this subject, I find it difficult to criticize the fleck in the Council’s eye, when almost daily we are being clobbered around the head by the plank in the Government’s eye as it shifts its gaze to yet another aspect of university funding that it has failed to consider. Indeed, the Council has made far more effort to involve the rest of the University with respect to this issue than it might have done in the past.

That is not to say that there are no lessons to be learned: in particular, it seems that the usual legislative timetables within the University cannot handle well an issue that both is urgent, and is one where the University wishes to make its views known and a quorum of the Regent House wishes more direct involvement. Having seen a response to such a situation this time that in some places was something of a reaction to events, it would be nice to receive assurances from the Council that it is reviewing what contingency procedures it can put in place to facilitate the involvement of the University the next time such a rare confluence of factors should occur. Such procedures must include making available background documents so that input can be made before events elsewhere have overtaken us.

So what about this particular issue? The Regent House as a whole is now to decide on the broad brush strokes, but that still leaves the fine detail where (it is clear just from looking at some online discussion boards) some members of the University wish to contribute. Whilst I realize that dealing with such contributions on a detailed level can be tiresome, we are talking about an issue of some importance – and involvement of the University in determining its own destiny here can surely not be too great an effort.

In the meantime, I see two areas where I think we should be paying more attention. The first is our media strategy: at the moment we are getting each week stories spun about how the universities must take responsibility for promoting access. These stories need instant rebuttal to the effect that the government of the day cannot shift responsibility for its poor financial decisions onto the universities.

The second is the financial strategy behind our access proposals. I admit (and indeed have been shown) that my knowledge of the detail of the regulations is insufficient to deal with this matter fully, but we need to recognize that on a basic level, money ends up with the Exchequer, with the students, or with the University. I previously1 suggested one circumstance in which some of the money on the table ending up with the Exchequer may be to our advantage. However, it looks as if that circumstance will not apply – in which case, we should be trying to ensure that all the money on the table ends up with the students or with the University. I think our current proposals would not accomplish that aim, and ought to be reviewed – if appropriate, with input from outside the Council and the Old Schools.


  • 1Reporter, 2010–11, p. 502

Dr S. C. Wimbush (Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the topic of this Discussion centres on a failure of Council to allow – or I would say rather facilitate – Discussion of its case for charging the maximum permissible undergraduate tuition fee. Council has tallied up an impressive number of failures in recent times that all point to its continuing and unresolved inability to recognize its proper role in the governance of this University. I probably do not need to list them, but these failures include the repugnant manner in which it forced through the installation of the lift in the University Combination Room (now closed), its heavy-handed handling of the student occupation of the same room in the face of widespread and openly expressed support from a significant number of members of the Regent House, its insolent refusal to submit a Regent House initiated Grace on the future of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, and its failure to respond to the Browne report on the future of university funding in a manner that a large number of members of the Regent House consider to be acceptable. Those who sniggered at the ‘trivial’ matter of the lift must now be noting with alarm the manner in which Council’s abuses continue unabated as the severity of the matters under consideration escalates. It is well that the arduous process of reigning in the Council began early, given the potentially dire consequences of the issues that the University now faces.

As a direct result of Council’s failure to facilitate proper discussion of its proposals, we are now faced with the regrettable situation of a mess of amendments and counter-proposals to its hasty Grace that highlight its inability to achieve a consensus of opinion – the hallmark of good government – or to adequately justify its proposed action. Instead of acknowledging and addressing this, it aims its tried and tested blunderbuss at the issue, aware (barely, and apparently only under the duress of the earlier Regent House initiated Discussion) that it cannot simply proceed as it will on this occasion (unlike with the lift), but hoping nonetheless that it can force through its proposals with a combination of phoney figures, obtuse language, and media manipulation. It is noted that the Grace it has submitted to the Regent House doesn’t explicitly state the fee to be charged at all, preferring to hide its intention so far as is possible. Meanwhile, we read regular news reports of University ‘spokespersons’ stating that Cambridge will charge the higher fee, and we see one-sided propaganda being distributed on the public homepage of the University. If only the Council were so open to addressing the queries of the Regent House! In the previous Discussion relating to fees, I count in excess of one hundred direct questions. Very few of those questions received answers in Council’s six paragraphs of response to the four-hour Discussion. I would read them all out again in the hope of eliciting a proper response, but I fear that would serve only to tire those present, and would still be largely ignored by Council.

I will not comment on the Council’s case (or lack of one) for extorting the maximum permissible levy from those whose ability entitles them to study here, since I have not seen it, presented in the proper manner in a detailed Report brought forward for Discussion and approval by the Regent House. I have, however, heard a lot of blathering about why it is not possible (again!) to follow the proper procedure in this case, the argument going something along the lines of a tight deadline from OFFA not allowing time for due consideration. However, this argument presupposes the outcome. It would be perfectly consistent to argue instead that since there is not time to properly conduct the process, the University has no option but not to report to OFFA by their unreasonably imposed deadline, and therefore no option but to charge the lower fee that does not require OFFA’s approval. Our procedures of governance are slow for a reason: to prevent hasty, ill-thought-out, and ultimately damaging acts by small groups of individuals acting as they alone see fit. When pressured to sign on the dotted line immediately in order to secure an unmissable, time-limited deal, the wise man takes pause to read the small print. Unfortunately, we’re not even being shown the small print, but that would seem to be not enough to stop our starry-eyed Council from racing headlong into disaster.

Dr M. R. Laven (Faculty of History and Fellow of Jesus College):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I wish to express my dismay at the failure of the Council to allow Discussion of its case for charging the maximum undergraduate tuition fee from 2012–13.

In its statement published on 23 February 2011, the Council reminds the Regent House that tuition fees are governed by Regulation 12 of the regulations on Composition Fees.1 Regulation 12 commits the University to charging the highest amount deemed acceptable by the Secretary of State for Education, subject to the approval of the Office for Fair Access. Since this regulation stifles discussion of the fee level in its cradle, and prevents us from competing in the free market in higher education which the Council has done so much to promote, I hope that the Council will support the new Grace submitted last week by Mr Beckles and others. This Grace advocates changing the terms of Regulation 12 to allow flexibility in the fee level set, and requires any change to be approved by Grace following a Report from Council giving detailed calculations demonstrating the necessity of charging fees at that level.

The Council, in its statement, claims that it ‘regrets the compressed timetable in which decisions must be made’. The Government’s timetable, recently decried in an open letter to David Willetts and Vince Cable, signed by more than 700 academics from Oxford and Cambridge, barely allows time for approval of the Council’s Grace. Apparently it does not allow any time for consideration in a Discussion. Instead of engaging in open debate in this assembly, members of Regent House are urged to participate in an online forum. So far, this forum has attracted 137 posts, from a grand total of 33 people.

Many of the comments have been actively hostile to the whole process of entering into negotiations with the Government on the terms that it has currently set. Many have also queried the Council’s assessment of the cost of educating an undergraduate at Cambridge, along with the threats of job losses and teaching cuts that are routinely bandied about when anyone suggests setting the fee at anything lower than the highest possible level. To me, it is an extraordinary coincidence that the maximum fee of £9,000 per year should also happen to be the Council’s magical break-even figure. If recent press reports are to be believed, this comes as a surprise to David Willetts too. He has stated that ‘universities that have rushed to £9,000 will end up looking rather silly’. He means us.

The forthcoming Council Grace has attracted a number of amendments, several of them arguing that less money should be diverted to fee waivers and more given over to maintenance grants, to assist students with immediate living costs while they are studying for a degree. And the Council’s proposals on access have occasioned much criticism, both from those who believe that the proposed quotas are unworkable, and from those who believe that the target figure of 61–63% maintained students is insufficiently ambitious. Given the number of serious issues that are bound up with the question of tuition fees, the Regent House should have been allowed a full Discussion of the Council’s proposals.


  • 1Statutes and Ordinances 2010, p. 160

Mr M. V. Lucas-Smith (Department of Geography) (read by Mr M. B. Beckles):

I do not wish to repeat the previous comments I made with regards to the dangers to access that fees of £9,000 would create; Regents may read these in the Reporter.

However, I do feel that the current Report outlining the supposed case for such fees is shoddy. In particular, I regard as lazy the lack of publishing of alternative scenarios.

For instance, where is the breakdown of current amounts of fees and costs, against which a comparison could be made? Where are alternative scenarios that give figures for £6,000 to less than £9,000 that set out the overall levels of funding that would be lost given the lower bursary amounts?

For instance, if fees of £7,500 were proposed, how many millions would that cost? I have no idea, because the Report fails to tell us. I would expect as a bare minimum a Report giving scenarios for £3,000, £6,000, £7,500, £8,000, and £9,000.

As a result, the Report presents a fait accompli, that it’s this or nothing. A range of options would have avoided that, as we could then have a sensible discussion on how much financial pain can be suffered, or how much donation funding we want to use, in order to be able to give the possibility of Cambridge not being more expensive than other universities.

Mr M. B. Beckles (University Computing Service):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am one of those who called for the Discussion we are having today. I’d like to thank Council for expediting today’s Discussion so that relevant issues can be aired before the upcoming ballot.1 I’m also pleased to see that an audio recording of this Discussion is being made available. I hope we will see more measures like this in the future.

Unfortunately, I continue to feel that it should not have been necessary for myself and 48 other Regents to call for this Discussion; given the ramifications of the decision Regents are being asked to make, such a Discussion should have been scheduled as a matter of course. I’ve heard it said that some members of Council believe that having had the opportunity to speak about higher education funding in a Discussion on 18 January and 1 February,2 Regents with anything to say about the level of fees the University could charge should have said so then. Unfortunately, at the time of that Discussion the University at large had not been made aware of any detailed proposals to charge £9,000 fees.

Some may also feel the opportunity to comment3 on the second report of the Planning and Resources Committee’s Working Group on Fees, Bursaries, and Widening Participation on Forum, the University’s discussion service, makes today’s Discussion superfluous. Now, I certainly look forward to commenting on future Council papers (in a variety of fora), although I hope this opportunity will be presented in a more timely manner from now on. However, anyone who has read the comments made on the discussion forum will be struck by two things: firstly, only one member of Council seriously engaged with those making comments, and secondly, by and large the comments were opposed to the proposal Council has now put before us. So, in their response to this Discussion, please will Council tell us: were members of Council given copies, or a detailed summary, of the comments made on the University discussion forum4 prior to making their decision at their meeting of 14 February?

So I believe neither the earlier Discussion nor the opportunity to comment on the Working Group’s second report is an adequate substitute for a proper Discussion of Council’s proposal, as set out in their Notice of 23 February 2011.5 And whilst the additional information provided in Council’s Notice is welcome, it still isn’t enough to make an informed decision, and this is precisely why it is so important that we have a Discussion about these matters prior to voting on them. I’d like to illustrate this with a few of the points that might have been raised had we had a Report followed by a Discussion on the level of fees we should set in 2012/13.

So, firstly, the wording of the Notice (para. 30 and Chart 1) suggests that we should be returning to the level of funding in 2006/07 to make up for lost income, and such a suggestion is at best misleading. Regardless of whether or not we could put additional teaching funds to good use, there has been no recent drop in public funding for undergraduate teaching,6 and it is unfortunate that Council’s Notice could be read as suggesting otherwise.

Secondly, using the total value of the HEFCE teaching grant (para. 29) for the calculations is inappropriate. A proportion of this grant is for teaching in taught postgraduate courses rather than undergraduate teaching.7 And what else has been included? From 1997/98 until 2009/10, the HEFCE teaching grant also provided funds, first as a premium, then as a targeted allocation, for ‘old and historic buildings’;8 in 2009/10 our allocation for this was £4.2 million.9 This allocation, in its entirety, is being included in the amount higher undergraduate tuition fees are meant to replace. It is not clear whether it is even lawful to charge only undergraduates for this, but even if it is, it certainly isn’t fair.10

Thirdly, whilst seeing a breakdown of the alleged ‘cost of teaching an undergraduate’ is welcome, this breakdown fails to provide the necessary detail to enable us to judge for ourselves how reasonable or otherwise it is. Also, whilst admitting that some of the figures are estimates, it fails to provide any indication of the size of the error in the estimates. Therefore, statistically speaking, this figure is of very limited usefulness.

Professor Young, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Planning and Resources, has subsequently said that the main source of error in the cost of teaching an undergraduate is from the Time Allocation Survey (TAS) data, and suggested the error in the TAS data is of the order of 1%.11 However, the University’s TAS website tells us ‘the rate of return to the survey is falling, and has fallen below the benchmark. The consequences could be serious for the University’s funding.’12 In light of this, an error of 1% seems wildly optimistic, and that’s before we consider whether or not there are sound statistical or methodological reasons for expecting the error to be higher.13

(The last time I took part in a Discussion, I pointed out to Council a factual error in one of its Notices,14 and seem to have been duly ignored. I hope that, given that the errors I’ve mentioned today are orders of magnitude more important, Council will help set Regents’ minds to rest by releasing all the underlying data and details of the assumptions it has made in its calculations. This would also have the happy consequence that it would allow the collective intellectual resources of the University to be brought to bear on the problem facing us. This might then lead to an alternative solution that would help Council avoid the current unpleasant course of action it feels obliged to take.)

As well as all this, there has been a certain amount of rhetoric, at times verging on the hyperbolic, concerning the University’s financial position. The University’s annual turnover is of the order of £1 billion. On that scale, £1 million – the amount we would fail to earn if we were to reduce fees by as little as £100 per annum15 – is practically unnoticeable. The suggestion that this would somehow ‘undermine our efforts to maintain the quality of our teaching and our wider mission of education and research’16 is alarmist nonsense.

Returning to the cost of educating an undergraduate, we are told this of the order of £17,100 per year, and in 2008/09 the cost was £16,510.17 This means that unless the cost of teaching undergraduates suddenly increased dramatically shortly before 2008/09, we have not received anything close to enough to cover the cost of their education for quite some time, and yet the University hasn’t gone bankrupt. Indeed, from 2004/05 to 2007/08, we made a small surplus each year.18

Clearly we have been routinely coping with this apparent ‘drain’ on our income for some time now. This leads to an important question: where have the funds that previously covered the ‘loss’ made in teaching undergraduates suddenly gone? And how much is available for covering teaching ‘losses’, exactly? We need to know that figure to know how much we actually need to charge undergraduates, rather than how much we want to charge out of some misguided sense of alleged fiscal responsibility. In June 2010, the 800th Anniversary Campaign reported that it had just surpassed its goal of raising £1 billion.19 Unless all these funds are earmarked for purposes other than undergraduate education, I humbly suggest that we should not be claiming there’s any danger of bankruptcy due to undergraduate teaching costs being unmet by public funds.

Furthermore, if we are considering fees in light of the cost of undergraduate teaching, why are we not looking at the cost of teaching overseas undergraduates? In 2008/09 the average amount the University received in tuition fees from an overseas undergraduate was just over £11,000, according to estimates from the Planning and Resource Allocation Office.20 Adding College fees of about £4,000 to that still leaves an average £1,500 shortfall.21 If the current level of fees overseas undergraduates are charged represents a loss to the University and Colleges as a whole, then shouldn’t it be adjusted?

In particular, if we can’t afford to educate our own undergraduates, why are we subsidizing overseas undergraduates, particularly given that the cost of coming to Cambridge for an overseas undergraduate compares extremely favourably with the cost of attending a top US university?22 Given the changed funding regime, should we not at least consider alternatives that might previously have been financially or politically difficult, such as adjusting the ratio of overseas undergraduates to Home/EU undergraduates, so that we take fewer Home/EU undergraduates, but charge them less, without decreasing the total amount received in tuition fees?

Finally, Council’s Notice implicitly talks in terms of the situation in 2015/16 (when the majority of undergraduates will be under the new funding regime). Why are we even framing the decision on fees on what the situation will be four years hence? We only need to make a decision for 2012/13. The responsible decision would be to set fees of £6,000 for 2012/13 and wait and see what happens, particularly as regards the effect of higher fees on access. One happy outcome of such a course of action is that the effect on access of doing this, given that universities ranging from Imperial College23 to Exeter University24 have now announced they will charge fees of £9,000, would be amazing.

And, once you realize that we only need to make the decision for 2012/13, as the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) made clear this morning,25 for those still worried by the Council’s financial scaremongering, I observe that charging £6,000 fees, instead of £9,000 fees, just for a year only actually means we fail to make an additional £6 million or thereabouts (because of the extra amounts we have to spend on fee waivers, bursaries, etc. if we charge £9,000 fees). Given our annual turnover and the size of our endowment, particularly after the 800th Anniversary Campaign, we could afford that, as a strictly limited measure, without even blinking.

About 37 Regents (including myself) have submitted an amendment to the Grace we are being asked to vote on. That amendment proposes we make an access agreement with OFFA but that the final level of fees be decided later by Report and Grace. This amendment keeps all our options open. (If we do this, the sensible figures to put in our access agreement for fee waivers, etc. would be percentages of the fee, or the amount of the fee above £6,000, that we eventually charge. This means we do not need to know the actual amount we will charge when writing the access agreement.)

If this amendment is included on the ballot paper then I urge Regents to consider voting for it, or at least ranking it highly in their preferences. If, for some reason, this amendment is not there, then I urge Regents to vote ‘Non Placet’: the Regent House should require the same standards of evidence and coherent reasoning from Council that it does for any academic paper. We should give Council the opportunity to resubmit their argument, with appropriate corrections, as a Report. (And given OFFA’s announcement this morning that the deadline for access agreements is now 19 April 2011,26 there should be time for them to do this.)

Trying to puzzle out Council’s financial case from their published statements has been largely a process of deduction, so I would like to close with a quote from that great fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes: ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’.27 Clearly, it is impossible that Council, or their advisers, would have deliberately presented a biased account of the University’s financial situation for the purposes of railroading us into voting for the maximum level of fees. I am therefore left with the unfortunate conclusion that Council hasn’t done its homework properly. Improbable as it may seem, its calculations look as though they were farmed out to a group of marmosets utterly lacking in data presentation skills, basic statistics, or a grasp of propositional logic, and who were additionally rushed for time. I have nothing against marmosets, but is it really appropriate for their numeracy to be quite so crucial to one of the most important decisions the University has been asked to make in recent years?


Mr O. J. Holland (graduate student at St Catharine’s College):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I would like to address my remarks to some of the blind-spots in the University Council’s case for charging the maximum undergraduate tuition fee from 2012/13. This also bears upon the forthcoming Grace on fees.

If passed, the Grace would see undergraduate tuition fees rise to £9,000 per year – with some important amendments around the edges about bursaries and access which, it saddens me to say, would perhaps only smooth the path to the next fee-hike a few years down the line. My suspicion is that it won’t stop at £9,000.

The University has presented its case in purely pragmatic terms and, insofar as it goes, this is understandable. The argument is being dragged along on the triumphant automobile of the united statisticians.

But what would a Placet vote mean in this instance? If the Grace passes, the goatherds of Azerbaijan would hardly notice; on the streets of Cairo and of Benghazi, the story would barely register as newsworthy. Regents will post their ballots while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.

In their ‘Reply to the remarks made in Discussion on a Topic of Concern’, the University Council makes reference to the reduction in the HEFCE teaching budget.1 The proposed fee-hike is intended to plug the deficit that this reduction in state funding would cause. That much is obvious. But what is being left unsaid?

If one were to consider the statistics and the graphs in splendid isolation, one might be forgiven in thinking that all of this is inevitable. But what would the consequences be for the nature of the education that is on offer? The raised fee would bring about a change, not merely in degree, but in kind. The shift would be qualitative, not merely quantitative – and this shift may or may not be irrevocable. The problem with students, for those in power, is that they think far too much, which leads them on to raise all sorts of pesky questions about how society might be made better and more equitable; however, if these said students could be persuaded to reconceive of themselves as consumers, at least some of this post-adolescent discontent might be usefully channelled into gripes about ‘quality of service’ and lecture content, perhaps.

The Government seem to be banking on the fact that the ‘student experience’ – however vacuously or broadly such a category is defined – will continue to be viewed as a precious commodity in the knowledge economy. As has recently been pointed out, ‘the fees increase replaces the teaching grant for arts and humanities which was removed in the government’s spending review announced earlier, and . . . the whole scheme is intended to complete the marketisation of higher education which was started by Blair, including paving the way to private universities.’2 A government with a rather dubious mandate has decided that higher education is no longer a social good that should be subsidized through progressive taxation. Those who are cowering before this governmental coercion must at least have the honesty to publicly acknowledge the reconceptualization of the nature of higher education which their proposals entail, rather than hiding behind a wall of silence and cooked statistics. If such an acknowledgement is not forthcoming, the whole process is hollow and unconscionable.

In circumstances such as these, the gesture of refusal can have important ramifications. In fleeing across the state border in protest against gubernatorial malfeasance, 14 Democratic senators from the US state of Wisconsin have recently made such a gesture.3 Meanwhile, 49 fellow members of the ISO face the death penalty in Zimbabwe for having dared to watch footage of the events unfolding in Egypt. These men and women have been animated by the belief that gestures of refusal are not only possible but, at times, necessary: ‘It is always the pressure not to believe this, by what is in the end a parochialism in time – a complacent projection of actual and historically instituted social orders as permanently necessary and exclusive – which most deeply discourages those who see very clearly that their own social order is in crisis.’4

For those who believe, as I do, that the vocation of the educator is fundamentally irreconcilable with that of the retailer: the only principled option in this Grace is to register a Non-Placet vote. I do not say this because I harbour any particular sense of disdain for check-out operators and shop assistants; quite the opposite. I say this because, having worked as a check-out operator and a shop assistant, I know the violence which such forms of life perpetrate on language, on patterns of speech, on effective communication, and, eventually, on habits of thought.

At some institutions, the creeping process of marketization which successive governments have forced upon the ungracefully named HE sector has already led to some bad decisions being taken. Howard Davies, the erstwhile Director of LSE, recently resigned as a result of what he tactfully refers to as the ‘reputational consequences for the LSE of accepting the donation from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation’.5 This gesture of resignation is, I think, significant. There are, it would seem, still some lines in the sand. With this mind, then, is it appropriate that senior members of this University took part in a UK plc ‘trade delegation’ to the Middle East when this delegation also included arms manufacturers such as BAE Systems and Rolls Royce?

I would ask this to Regents: where is your line in the sand?