Anthony Seldon’s producer interest and bad history of higher education

Responding to Anthony Seldon's latest article on universities for The Times, Tom Bailey takes the VC of the University of Buckingham for failing to understand the recent history of HE and why we've arrived at the place in policy that we have.
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In his latest article on universities for The Times, Anthony Seldon, the University of Buckingham’s new vice chancellor, has attacked self-interested academics for neglecting teaching and praised the reforms proposed in Friday’s Green Paper, arguing Jo Johnson “has the chance to succeed” where Thatcher failed in reforming higher education. Unfortunately, Seldon mixes weak evidence, shaky logic, unacknowledged self-interest and a tenuous grasp of the recent history of higher education for someone who positions themselves as a champion of contemporary history.

Anthony Seldon’s article features many of the usual themes of his recent writings on higher education. His more reasonable points include: the need for greater pastoral provision by universities; that universities can do more to improve social mobility; that universities can learn about pedagogy from schools; that the focus on research can overshadow teaching. However, Seldon also makes several highly questionable arguments.

He decries the poor state of university teaching based on anecdotes from ex-pupils of the private schools he has led. There’s no recognition that £9,000 a year fees buy less teaching time and professional development for academics than £30,000 a year school fees can. He fails to recognise the shift between school and university: to independent learning instead of spoon-feeding for exams. Seldon also argues Johnson must cut “the absurd and repetitive bureaucratic requirements that all universities are subject to”, while supporting the introduction of the TEF. A good example of cognitive dissonance.

As David Kernohan has put it elsewhere on this website, the TEF will “add to institutional burdens and spawn new internal processes”, and constitutes “big regulation”. Or, as Martin McQuillan wrote, “in the name of creating a dynamic market the Green Paper proposes to build a glorious state bureaucracy”.

Academics should feel aggrieved by Seldon’s article, attacking them as self-interested, while failing to acknowledge his own bias. Seldon criticises academics for thinking they have “no need of advice on better teaching” and believing that an aptitude for research means they will “automatically be able to teach”. Apparently universities are therefore promoting “the producer interest to the detriment of the paying consumer, the student.” However, having decried the producer interest, Seldon proceeds to argue that the “two-year undergraduate courses need access to student loans on equal terms with conventional three-year ones, and access to research funding must be made more equitable.” Of course, making this argument when the university you lead runs over 100 two year undergraduate courses, as opposed to about ten 3 year courses, reads just like producer interest. Similarly, Seldon’s call for “more equitable” research funding allocation is a continuation of the push of his predecessor, Terence Kealey, for Buckingham to gain access to the REF.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of the article is the ignorance of the history of higher education displayed by Seldon. As he was a co-founder of The Institute of Contemporary British History, established in 1986 for academics to study the recent past “as a corrective to the interpretations of post-war British history being used in the public sphere by both the political left and right to explain then current issues”, you might have hoped for better. For example, Seldon argued that:

The higher education sector needs to be opened up much more to stimulate competition. Lord Adonis and Michael Gove did much over the last decade to open up the school sector to choice and diversity, which has helped to drive up standards and has empowered the consumers of education.

Of course, Seldon could have chosen to consider the ill-fated recent experience of new entrants into higher education in the UK. His reading list might have included the National Audit Office’s report and Public Accounts Committee’s report. Will more competition really raise standards, or see yet more unscrupulous providers taking advantage of the access to the loan book?

Seldon’s assessment of Thatcher’s impact on higher education is simply incorrect. Thatcher’s Government’s reforms of the universities were not thwarted by producer interest, but the political interests of Tory backbenchers who fought Keith Joseph’s proposal to means test tuition fees – half the Parliamentary Party signed an Early Day Motion against the idea, fearing the idea would not be popular amongst middle class voters.

The idea that Thatcher did not reform the universities ignores the huge changes she oversaw. Her government oversaw the introduction of research selectivity (as I have written about previously) and the Jarratt report, which proposed the vice chancellor as ‘chief executive’, the primacy of councils over senates and the many other aspects of contemporary managerialism in higher education. It was the combination of these two elements, funding incentives to focus on research and greater managerial capacity to direct universities, which skewed universities away from teaching.

Far from representing an attempt by Johnson to act where Thatcher failed, the TEF can be interpreted as an attempt to undo her government’s reforms by rebalancing the focus on teaching. Whether it will be successful is another question.

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