Better policymaking needs democracy

Who is education policy for? Since the publication of the Augar review this seems to have become more of a contested question.

False binaries have erupted between further and higher education, in spite of Augar’s attempted rebalancing of funding and emphasis. Academic work is constantly being scrutinised in the name of the economic future of the country, of taxpayers, of business – and policy has tended to reinforce that economistic line.

We have had four decades of policy formation through thinktanks, SPADs, corporate-funded charities – and where honestly has it got us? Whether it be in higher education, education as a whole, or other areas of the public sector, it would be hard to look at the structures and institutions we have and honestly say that they are run democratically and in the interest of those who use or work in them. There has been an emptying out of the democratic and political content of institutions, in the name of efficiency, productivity and impact.

Who runs universities?

Universities are a case in point. They are institutions with tremendous power to shape young people’s lives, which have become central to the functioning of the local economy but there is almost total lack of any meaningful democracy in how they are run and controlled. If we look at many of the organisations that influence policy in UK higher education, we would be hard-pressed to argue that they actually have the interest of staff and students at heart.

This is reiterated in Augar, which explicitly ties the idea of “good governance” to the “constant scrutiny of such expenditure and benchmarking against peers”. In the report, governance underpins competition and market risk, accountability for money, and financial sustainability. In terms of leadership, there is a link made to executive pay and strengthening leadership in further education colleges. However, the direction of travel links governance to value-for-money – and a continuation of strong, heroic leadership with authoritarian forms of management.

Policy-making is not working in the interests of education workers or students in our universities. Students and staff alike are suffering from a mental health crisis. Staff are casualised – from our friends who have held down multiple insecure teaching or research jobs in different cities, to the security guards in our universities who are employed on zero-hour contracts. And despite the Civic University Commission, since 2010 many universities have backed away from deeper engagement with local communities and local economies.

A different way of doing policy

What then would it look like to create policy ideas and reports that are written from the bottom up? Could we create the political space for grassroots policy – policies and ideas written by education workers of all stripes, from lecturers to professional services staff to part-time students? What form of policy organisation would we need to create to make this possible? These are the questions that lie behind our report for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies which lays out an alternative vision for Further and Higher Education.

If universities are to be run in the interests of the staff and students who work and learn in them and the local communities in which they are situated, then this will mean a struggle in and over the political terrain that we have inherited from the last four decades of neoliberal policy-making in education. What we argue is that we need to make space for the research and policy ideas that will allow a new politics of education to arise.

The need for ideas

The collection overall lays out a radical terrain for both FE and HE. It focuses upon the possibilities for participative and cooperative ownership and regulatory models for institutions and the sector. Drawing upon historical examples that question the social role of colleges and universities, the authors pinpoint specific policies and practices that would: increase participation; develop institutions as local hubs for inclusion, cohesion and access; change the way in which research reflects local, regional and national needs; challenge institutionalised violence, including sexual abuse; change academia so it ‘starts from assumptions of accessibility’; and decolonise institutions.

This is not an exhaustive account of the policy areas that need to be addressed if the system of higher education is be made more equal and democratic. These policies are the beginning of a bigger and a longer conversation about how we discuss education and who gets to decide how we make decisions that affect they everyday lives of students and education workers. We have suffered nearly a decade of cuts, twenty to thirty years of marketisation on a system of education which was already hierarchical and unequal. The policies that led to these models were not built on principles of equality, cooperation or democracy. It is time that the politics of education was created by the grassroots – it is time for staff and students to recognise their collective potential and push for democratic renewal.

One response to “Better policymaking needs democracy

  1. Why should Universities be run in the interest of their staff? It isn’t necessarily because that will lead to better outcomes for their students. Many times I have been criticised by colleagues when I advocate policies and actions that enhance teaching quality, on the grounds that “people will think that we are only a teaching University”. It is an little spoken truth that many academics would like to focus on research and view teaching as a regrettable necessity. Whatever one may think of the details of the TEF evaluation, there is substantial evidence that some of our proudest research universities seem to have done a less than sterling job. Within the research area, there is a Pareto principle, where the great bulk of the valuable research (as measured by things like citations) comes from a minority of the faculty, and the same minority over time, as does the bulk of the research funding. In a business context, the concept of “regulatory capture”, where those regulated end up controlling the actions of the regulator, is well known. That is the risk in notions that academics should determine the practices of the universities in which they work. We would be fully back in a Medieval Guild.

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