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The Enemy Within – why the narrative about universities and students went so wrong

From Margaret Thatcher to Generation Snowflake, Keith Joseph to Sam Gyimah, why and how have universities and students found themselves so firmly on the wrong side of public opinion? And what are we going to do about it?

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Wonkhe, as you might expect, is full of unashamed policy wonks.

Yes, we may take perverse pleasure in dull policy analysis. But we are also inspired by the people we meet across the sector that are all passionate about the power of education. Committed to outstanding scholarship. Driven to push forward the frontiers of knowledge.

So the headlines about universities over the last month, let alone the last year, have been tough to read. They reveal a sad truth. That the higher education sector, for all its strengths, has lost its ability to tell a coherent story about itself.

The sector and its leadership are now suffering a collective crisis of moral authority, a crisis of leadership, and a crisis of identity.

That’s because they are under attack from across the political spectrum.

On the one hand, there is a narrative pushed broadly by the left. This argues that academics and students are under constant assault from managers, ministers and market forces. That vice chancellors are complicit in turning universities from open, academic communities into cold-hearted corporations, driven by profit.

On the other, there is a narrative pushed broadly by the right. It claims that universities are ivory towers. They are unaccountable, lack transparency and are out-of-touch. Universities are just another vested interest to be burst open by the free market. Vice chancellors represent all that is anti-competitive, protectionist and inefficient in education.

And we have seen these twist and morph into a consistent line of attack used by unlikely allies in both our own government and trade unions in HE.

It posits that our institutions are run by arrogant, complacent, remote, metropolitan elites. These elites are fraudulent, charging students maximum fees for degrees of little worth to themselves or society. They use students as cash cows, yet leave them with massive debts that they will never pay off.

They are bent on turning degrees into a commodity to be bought and sold – a market which knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

They are, essentially, corrupt – filling their pockets with huge salaries, pensions, perks and expenses.

And they then cover this up with opaque governance and management structures.

Vice chancellors have become an “enemy within” – to blame for intergenerational unfairness and, in part, responsible for scarring our society for decades to come.

As the universities minister Sam Gyimah said last week these attacks are “not a blip”. They are the new normal.

And under that sort of pressure, it is no wonder vice chancellors have fragmented over how to reach a collective deal on the USS pension scheme.

So I have tried to get under the skin of why this is happening and how university leadership must respond.

First, I argue they have fallen into a trap of their own making – buying into 19th century idealism, and not adapting to political reality in the UK following the 2008 financial crash.

Second, I explore how the political right and left are now exploiting this for their own ends, including ripping up the consensus on expanding higher education.

And third, I set out how the sector must start to address these challenges – the self-reflection it needs to undertake, and the radical changes required.

Narrative is all

Too often wonks forget the reality of politics today and that it is not about bureaucrats, technocrats and managers. Or carefully, evidenced, incremental reform. Or even perfectly crafted policy.

It is about power, legitimacy and survival and how to harness the public support to secure it. It is about creating the right enemies and dividing lines, with a narrative that the public will buy into. It is the art of the possible, the attainable and the next best – as Bismarck said. Short-term initiatives that can best be packaged and sold back to us.

It sounds cynical, sinister and grubby. But it’s worth perhaps thinking just three years back to Ed Miliband’s stint as Labour Party leader. He was derided as “Red Ed”, with no credible political narrative to give or policy stories to tell. Yet his broader thinking on predatory capitalism or the squeezed middle, much-mocked at the time, are now accepted beliefs in Westminster.

And this shows the essential skill of politics: timing.

Telling the right story, at the right point and in the right way. A story that makes sense of the world around us – our families, our homes, our workplaces and our communities. A story which connects emotionally to our passions, aspirations and ambitions, for good and for ill. And a story which joins the dots from our past, to our present and to the future.

People dismiss this too easily as spin. Persuading with stories, however, is one of the most powerful skills we have had as humans since the beginning of time. The technology and techniques of mass communications may have transformed the scale at which we can tell them. But the fundamentals do not change.

A crisis of storytelling

You would think that universities would understand this instinctively. From antiquity to today, knowledge has been passed on by storytelling. Thesis, hypothesis and synthesis are, at their heart, a narrative device.

Research, teaching and scholarship are ultimately about making sense of the world around us.

Yet despite overflowing with some of the cleverest scholars in the world, it remains a huge struggle for the sector to articulate universities’ overall purpose, vision and mission. And this allows for the continual indulgence in existential angst.

What are we?

What do we do?

Who are we for?

We fall back, invariably, on eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophy for guidance. That universities have a higher, moral, noble purpose – existing to build a liberal society and a better world. Universities are defenders of truth, knowledge and principle. The stewards of facts, logic and evidence. The protectors of liberalism and democracy.

This is the Kantian view of the university as the place where reason and thinking could be deployed freely. Or Humbolt seeing them as where nationality and statehood can be understood. Or John Henry Newman seeing scholarship as having a cleansing, spiritual purpose. Universities are apart from and above the rest of society.

“A university training”, Newman writes in the oft-quoted Idea of a University in 1852, “is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them”.

Yet remarkably we still see even technocrats still subscribing Kant, Humbolt and Newman’s vision at each major milestone in higher education in the last sixty years.

Robbins in making the case for a mass expansion of degrees set out four aims for higher education: “instruction in skills”; “advancement of learning”; and to “promote the general powers of the mind”. But he also said it should aim for “the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship”.

Dearing recommended the first-ever tuition fee system in 1997 and talked about building a “learning society”.

Browne wrote in his 2010 review that his funding reforms would enable higher education to “create the knowledge, skills and values that underpin a civilised society”.

And even Michael Barber argued in last year’s OfS consultation that better market regulation, of all things, would protect: “The joy and value of knowledge pursued for its own sake; the pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful; the fundamental importance of freedom of speech and vigorous disagreement based on mutual respect”.

We risk creating a rod for own backs by continuing to describe higher education in such florid, highfalutin terms.

We all still frame universities as an unambiguous positive for individuals. And we market degrees in terms of Victorian self-improvement – that education is about changing your life; building your character; equipping you to be a citizen and a better member of society.

But this has opened a dangerous mismatch between the ideals of the past and the commercial narrative of the last twenty years.

Former universities minister David Willetts mounted a passionate defence of higher education in his book last year, A University Education.

Yet even he, of all people, struggles to bridge the gap between the rhetoric we tell ourselves and describing the system he created, where words like “debt”, “loans” and “fees” remain so pervasive, and so divisive.

That’s because Willetts’ reforms mean we are now required to buy into the same story about higher education: it is all a lifelong financial investment.

It tells lecturers they must be motivated by boosting students’ future earning power. And it tells students they need to be motivated by their own self-interest – constantly judging what they have gained.

Degrees are no longer about giving scholars a “clear conscious view of their own opinions and judgments”. They are now commercial products, paid for by loans, protected by consumer rights legislation.

In this narrative, vice chancellors are no longer stewards of knowledge. They are now chief executives tasked with maximising students as units of income, to meet the interests of multiple commercial stakeholders, the taxpayer and the consumer.

Universities are no longer hierarchical, elitist institutions. Higher education today is a rich ecosystem of distinct ancient, civic, technical, modern, private and alternative institutions – all fighting to remain financially viable.

For David Watson, the late vice chancellor at Brighton, universities remain peculiar, odd institutions which have a handful of shared interests. They exist in, what he called, “a sort of mutually-assured higher education enterprise which government and others would like to be more differentiated, by purpose and especially by price”.

It’s perhaps no surprise that having encouraged universities to compete with each other, when we then ask them to work together for mutual benefit – as we have seen under the auspices of the future of the USS pension scheme – universities reject the idea of the common good, and break away to protect their own self interest.

And perhaps this means publicly subsidised universities have lost the right to be judged against Kant or Newman. They must now be judged against contemporary business ethics, legislation and regulation – and above all, public opinion.

As the government’s post-18 education funding review chair, Philip Augar might argue, we are no different to the banks, following the crash and subsequent “age of austerity”.

Mad as hell

The old narratives of higher education are increasingly threadbare.

Our universities have not been insulated from the enormous political churn in the US, UK and Europe in the last ten years. We live in a world of enormous challenges. Yet tens of millions of citizens have lost faith in university-driven liberal, social democracy to provide the answers.

The 2008 crash exposed the fallacy that there was an unimpeachable third way between right and left. Social democrats have tried to excuse their failings as if this was a failure of public relations – not of political philosophy.

The truth is the political mainstream forgot the basic tenet of politics: individuals, families and communities. And too often they took voters for granted, just ask David Cameron, Hillary Clinton, or even Theresa May.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the current smash hit at the National Theatre is the stage adaptation of the 1974 film, Network. Because in it, Howard Beale, the veteran-newscaster-turned-political-prophet, gives us the narrative for our times.

I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore.

And it is hard not to agree.

In the absence of credible answers, there is a temptation to tear up the old political narratives and leap into the dark. That’s why we see the demand across the West for leaders from outside the political establishment, who purport to understand people’s day-to-day lives – their struggles, their fears and their identities.

Donald Trump instinctively got this in 2016.

He offered a standard Republican policy manifesto: tax cuts, tighter immigration, welfare reform, anti-universal health care, pro-Bible and pro-guns. But as a master self-publicist, he knew how to pitch it. That people were right to be angry. The system is broken. That the country needed an outsider to rip it up.

Clinton, the political insider, had no competing story.

Trump and his band of political neophytes tapped into an understandable but dangerous public mood across the West. That the rest of the world is too difficult to understand, the problems too hard to deal with.

The wrong side of the backlash

Universities have been caught on the wrong side of this populist backlash.

Higher education is still overwhelmingly against Brexit. Yet many still do not recognise that it has become synonymous with a demand for change. And in the same way, the strikes over the last month are not simply about pensions. They reflect much broader anger about the sector’s direction of travel.

Because the growth of higher education has been accelerated by exactly the geopolitical phenomena that have come under such attack across the West – globalisation, conglomeration, monopolisation, massification, digitisation, internationalisation, corporatisation, and the free movement of goods, finance, capital and above all: people.

Far from making society better, universities are seen to be the symptom of a failed political philosophy. And that’s why the scandal of vice chancellors’ remuneration has proved such a lightning rod for public criticism.

For years, the vast majority of our leaders have been tone-deaf when handling legitimate questions about inflation-busting pay and pension packages. And, as Howard Beale said, people are not going to take it anymore.

The debate is more fundamental than whether Professor Bloggs is being paid too much or not for leading complex, international businesses.

How senior remuneration is set reflects a university’s own moral compass and corporate governance – its accountability and openness; its ethos, values and ethics; its commitment to fair pay and due reward.

And as we are seeing over the last twelve months, that if a university fails to be transparent over pay then they risk losing their right to represent, advocate and lobby for millions of students and staff.

It seems vice chancellors are surprised to join the ranks of others scandals which dominate public discourse over the last few years.

Bankers‘ bonuses. Google, Amazon and Starbucks’ taxes. MPs expenses. Carillion. Grenfell. Energy firms. Social care. Phone-hacking. Hillsborough. Rotherham. Oxfam.

The message is clear – universities, after all, are not above scrutiny as Newman presumed. Vice chancellors’ pay is now yet another reason for us to get “mad as hell”. And it is a recognition that we no longer want to live in gratitude to benevolent top-down hierarchies.

Trump, UKIP, the far right in Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy and the Czech Republic got that – and yes even The Five Star Movement; Momentum; the SNP; and En Marche.

We are all activists now.

The return of left vs right

Bizarrely, in the midst of all the turmoil, there has been a return to the old left-right dichotomy.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Jon Lansman were all fringe political figures for decades.

We are now seeing political phrases not seen in domestic current affairs since the Cold War. Socialism. Nationalisation. Worker power. Price controls. Income policy. Taxing the rich. Full employment. Keynesianism. Unilateralism.

Corbyn and co never saw themselves as part of the Westminster establishment. They operated outside the Labour Party structure in the 1980s. And even today, despite winning the leadership, they act as insurgents against their own parliamentary party – to reject everything that even whiffs of being New Labour.

Momentum’s rise is a recognition that established parties are no longer capable of building political consensus through the first-past-the-post system. Instead, they need to build a movement outside the strictures of traditional representative democracy.

It resonates because it feels like we’re destined for a long era of hung parliaments, small majorities, coalitions and minority governments.

The Tories have not won a major Commons majority since 1987. Indeed they have only won two small working majorities out of the last seven general elections – in 1992 and 2015. Thatcher may have broken the current Conservatives as a “natural” party of power, possibly forever.

Yet aside from Blair’s three unprecedented general election wins (now forever tainted by Iraq), Labour has won only one general election since 1945 with a majority larger than five seats – and that was under Harold Wilson 52 years ago.

And so big power vacuums have opened up in the political landscape.

Brexit splits the country on age, class and geography. New Labour and now Liberal Democrats have been and probably now gone. One Nation Conservatism as an intellectual anchor is over – the botched Big Society vision has had its last hurrah. Scotland and Wales are now virtually separate political entities. Northern Ireland is a political tinderbox, capable of watering down Brexit and bringing down the current government. Local government is decimated, and regional government is breaking away from the centre.

The return of “the enemy within”

Despite all this, the Conservatives never took Corbyn seriously until the polls closed last summer.

At first, they assumed his party would bring him down, as Kinnock had once killed off Militant. Then, they thought he would implode in the heat of a general election.

They relied on painting him as a relic of the 1980s. That massive new borrowing and nationalisation would bust the economy. That Corbyn was a pacifist, exposing us to nuclear and conventional threats. That he was a Marxist, pro-IRA and pro-Soviet – anti-democratic, soft on terror and anti-British.

He was, in other words, “the enemy within”.

And this line of attack had deeper roots.

Back in 1984, Margaret Thatcher and the National Union of Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill were in a fight to the bitter end.

At first, the government positioned the strike as miners against management, then working miners against striking miners.

But the rhetoric changed after the so-called Battle of Orgreave, which Thatcher saw as tantamount to civil war.

“The rule of law”, she said, “must prevail over the rule of the mob”.

Then later that summer she told her backbenchers:

“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”

And then that autumn she gave a speech on “Why Democracy Will Last” railing against the “hard left operating inside our system, conspiring to use union power and the apparatus of local government to break, defy and subvert the law.”

The language was deliberately divisive, and the challenge was clear. The public was being asked where it stood. You are either one of us or against us. You are for democracy or against it. You are for socialism or for the free market.

There was no room for a third way.

The “new barbarians”

A key part of Thatcher‘s strategy was to position this ideological civil war as taking place not just in coalfields but across society – in every city, town and household.

And one of the most important battles was for the hearts and minds of young people – in classrooms and on campuses.

Thatcher, on paper at least, understood universities. She was famously a scientist, with a much-debated claim to have invented soft-scoop ice cream.

Later as Education Secretary in the early 1970s, she had envisaged a massive expansion in student numbers through closing grammar schools and investing in new comprehensives. She extended the Open University to young students and championed the University of Buckingham as the vanguard of a wave of new private providers. Even as Prime Minister, she presided over the biggest increase in student maintenance grants for a generation.

But it suited her government to portray universities as harbouring the “the enemy within”. The mass campus movements over the 1960s and 1970s had emboldened students and academics. And the ability to mobilise tens of thousands on to the streets was highly dangerous during the miners’ strike.

So ministers sought to delegitimise higher education, claiming that there was overt political indoctrination across the system. NUS was painted as a front of the far left. The public was told that Marxist teaching was endemic. And complacent university management was turning a blind eye to extremists in their midst.

The challenge to vice chancellors was clear. That they may argue universities have a moral purpose to shape society for the better. But in a civil war, between left and right, where did they stand?

This was not, perhaps, any surprise.

The education secretary in 1984, Keith Joseph, had been on the frontline of this battle back in the mid-1970s. He provided the intellectual heart of Thatcherism – and in many ways, is still the foundation of much of modern-day Conservative thinking.

Just like the crisis of social democracy today, Joseph saw that the contract between elected government, business and society had come apart. For him, the post-war consensus on the mixed economy was a failure. There was no part of society in which the free market should not have a stake. Indeed, he even advocated the radical idea of parents paying university tuition fees to pay for an increase in the science budget.

He had taken this message on a tour of 150 university and polytechnic campuses in the mid-1970s. And into the eighties, Tory ministers continued to speak, debate and argue their case across the higher education sector.

This was not just about ideas. It was about the optics. They were jostled. They were shouted down. They were branded fascists and racists. Conservatives were even, on a few occasions, no-platformed. And in doing so, students and academics walked into the trap laid for them – allowing the government to paint them as being against democracy; against Britain; and against the public.

We can see this clearly in May 1986. Joseph wrote an extraordinary letter to the-then NUS president, later Labour education minister, Phil Woolas.

The saddest aspect of this new relapse into the dark ages is that it manifests itself… in the institutions of advanced learning that should be the crucibles of debate and discussion. In a university or a polytechnic, above all places, there should be room for discussion of all issues, for the willingness to hear and to dispute all views including those that are unpopular or eccentric or wrong.

He then goes on:

But the new barbarians are not genuinely concerned with the incitement to disorder or the detail of individual freedoms. On the contrary, they are concerned to prevent the orderly and serious discussion of those views with which they themselves do not happen to agree. But in our democracy it is not an offence to discuss views of which some, even many, disapprove. So these new barbarians set up their own fascist policies: they ban that which they disapproved by adopting “no platform” policies…

And he finishes:

Remember now, before you do lasting damage to your institutions and to our political life, that serious free and orderly discussion of controversial issues is the hallmark of any society which is worth living in. I plead with you to remember that the denial of such discussion, is a denial of respect of individuals, an attitude morally equivalent to that taken by the fascist and racists whom you wish to oppose.”

And we thought that Jo Johnson gave us a hard time…

The new “new barbarians”

Why is this relevant now?

Because it may be 2018, but it appears students and universities remain an “enemy within”.

The original letter to NUS was an early step towards the Education Act 1986’s highly opaque requirement for universities to protect freedom of expression. And in the political-right’s current narrative, the same legislation is still used as a stick to beat higher education with for failing to defend what it believes makes us all British.

We see this in the confected outrage about no-platforming, safe spaces and Generation Snowflake.

We see it in the confusion over compliance with Prevent – and allegations of left-wing antisemitism and Islamism on campus.

We also see it in the faux-outcry over Jacob Rees-Mogg being jostled at UWE.

The truth is the political right is reeling from the huge swing to Labour last year among the under-45s. They cannot believe that attacks on Corbyn’s socialism have fallen on deaf ears.

And it means, even in an age of social media, our campuses are becoming ideological battlegrounds once again.

The far left has never forgiven NUS for sitting on the fence over the Browne Review and new £9,000 tuition fee system – fairly or unfairly turning their back on the thousands of students protesting across the country back in 2010. It means Momentum, not Labour, has now become the primary organising force on campuses.

On the other hand, Sam Gyimah has spotted a political opportunity. He is deliberately following in Keith Joseph’s footsteps to take the Conservatives’ broader message out on campus. Writing last year, he argued confronting Corbynism directly required a return to face-to-face engagement and debate in universities. He said the left should not have an unopposed run at first and second-time voters. The right, he said, needed to sell a positive vision of capitalism and free markets in a post-2008, post-Brexit world.

“The modern Conservative Party cannot have no-go areas. We must engage with humility, and communicate a clear vision,” he wrote.

It was Gyimah’s job application for the Department for Education and a bid to become the now self-styled “Minister for Students”. His so-called “Sam on Campus” political project is underway, run by his own Parliamentary Office and the approach is now being extended by Conservative Campaign HQ.

The inference is that vice chancellors have allowed far-left-entryism and that the political right must now intervene.

Who speaks for students?

It is all possibly part of a wider move against NUS from within No.10, ministers and the wider political right. It may be the biggest democratically elected youth movement in the country – but it is not seen as the legitimate voice of students. It is NUS, ironically, which is now being no-platformed.

First, No.10 while positioning itself as acting on behalf of students deliberately blocked NUS or anyone associated with NUS from being on the Office for Students board. No.10 then vetoed NUS or any other student or graduate being on the independent post-18 review panel.

Second, Jo Johnson’s response to NUS and a small number of students‘ unions boycotting the first year of TEF, was to downgrade the student voice in this year‘s exercise.

Third, the Home Office, DfE, HEFCE, the Charities Commission, and the police are all quietly increasing pressure on universities where students’ unions are not deemed to back Prevent enthusiastically enough – despite being under no legal obligation to do so.

And fourth, the government has strengthened the Charity Commission’s remit regulating student unions – investigating their political activity and potential breaches of charity law.

And the message is the real fault lies, not with naive students – but from what Michael Gove famously called “The Blob”.

The Republicans in the US created this concept, to describe what they saw as an amorphous, bloated education establishment opposing reform at every turn. It was painted as a mass of bureaucrats, unions and academics who eschew rigour for a left-wing, progressive agenda.

Taking on “The Blob”

So if NUS is not speaking for students then who is?

That’s where the political right is carefully inserting itself as a solution to intergenerational unfairness – not leaving it to the left.

It’s interesting that the universities minister himself is calling on students to consider suing universities over lost contact time during the current strike. It may be “the age of the student” as he put it last week. That means taking action as a consumer in a market, not abolishing markets completely.

We see this in the government’s positioning on the post-18 education funding review. Theresa May has very little interest in the intricate policy detail at this point. This is all part of her political survival, to give her administration a purpose beyond Brexit.

And, like Michael Gove, it means pitching herself as a guerrilla activist against universities’ leadership.

No.10 has deliberately steered away from defending the university establishment along traditional left-right lines – that Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees risked creating a £11 billion a year black hole, leading to job losses; pay cuts; course closures; and research scaled-back, leading to capped numbers and fewer disadvantaged students.

No, instead, the Prime Minister makes out she has only just found out about her own government’s policy. She acknowledges Labour’s arguments that the public is right to be angry that the market works against them, whether its housing, energy or education. And she says young people and their families are right not to trust vice chancellors’ assertions to offer value-for-money when students are left with such high debts.

That means the Conservatives are attempting to form an unlikely alliance with students to smash universities as a vested interest – through tighter regulation, greater accountability and consumer power.

And the underlying message is that consumerism is a sign of students taking back control. Forget the nineteenth century idealism. Universities can close if they don’t listen to customers. And this is a price worth paying to flush out the institutions that are seen to be undermining the economy.

We need to stop sulking

I was told of a recent gathering of vice chancellors in the Athenaeum to lick their wounds, discuss the recent attacks on universities and how to respond to them. This is the way it has always been done. Crisis summits in private members clubs, over brandy and cigars.

But universities must stop the complaining about what is being done to the sector, instead asking what can be done for and by themselves?

The post-18 funding review will have failed if it ends up simply shuffling money between colleges, universities, children’s services and schools. We cannot just rob Peter to pay Paul in DfE’s budget.

That means universities need to be politically savvy. We need to be street-fighters. And like never before, we need to reset our purpose, vision and mission. To act as a sector, not a collection of warring factions.

We must also stop being fatalistic about the change being thrust upon us. But we have to change what we do and how we act and only then can we change the bigger narrative we tell about ourselves and the story that others tell about us.

There are ideas and solutions out there ready for the taking.

So alongside this article, we are setting out what might be termed an agenda for change.

It’s not perfect. It‘ll clash in places. It can’t all happen at once or quickly. But it’s a starting point for discussion, planning and action.

  • We must tackle senior pay and remuneration, making it more transparent and accountable. Universities must address the anger and frustration about this issue or we’ll never be able to move on to dealing with anything else.
  • We must create genuinely democratic institutions. No more archaic, hierarchical structures where we don’t need them. We should explore different governance models and barriers to innovating in this area should be broken down.
  • We need to explore how we end the current system of academic selection and how to move to a comprehensive university system. Without radical reform, universities will be fated to entrench social stratification and class divides.
  • We must be unashamed social activists and social entrepreneurs, constantly focused on public impact. We must be led by values not commercial, self-interest. We need a campaign mentality to build and ally with our own communities – on everything from mental health to job insecurity, from violence-against-women to welfare reform. It also requires reimagining the civic university for the 21st century, so all universities are anchors in their regions – in industry; in education; in the public sector.

Find these ideas in more detail here.

Change now or move on

The bottom line is vice chancellors can no longer plot the future of the sector behind the closed doors. We need bold and brave leadership now more than ever, and if that isn’t forthcoming, then we need a new generation to push themselves forward.

We cannot afford just to muddle through anymore. We cannot keep our fingers crossed in the hope that the bad headlines will go away. And we cannot just make do and mend when the weak policy ideas or ideologically-motivated change is thrust upon us.

We must aim to establish a national consensus on the right social contract between students, taxpayers, the state, business and civil society. And it needs to last for a generation, not just for a parliamentary term.

Universities, however, will not be taken seriously in this debate unless we show the vision and capacity to reform and renew.

The government is talking about the “winds of change” blowing through higher education.

But real change needs to come from ourselves.

Find a printable pdf version of this article here.

9 responses to “The Enemy Within – why the narrative about universities and students went so wrong

  1. Mark – Great article which covers a range of fundamentally important issues. Can we also make sure that one part of the solution is to forge a new and constructive partnership between colleges and universities? That is essential to provide a more comprehensive, lifelong and flexible, local and accessible system for every adult.

  2. A really good article with a sincere plea for change. Do you need to elaborate on what you mean by a ‘new national consensus on the right social contract’? What benefits will it bring? Otherwise, you have rightly highlighted a broken narrative but not really created a new replacement narrative of renewal, where the UK’s significant global position in HE grows even stronger. In storytelling terms do we need to move from a ‘Sage’ – the fount of knowledge to a ‘Creator’ a specialist partner working with others to create a better world?

  3. There is some great stuff here, and staff at unis appreciate that this is being noticed. But sadly we will not move forward without a positive resolution to the pensions problem. In my case there would be a reduction to £10,000 per year from around £20,000 per year. Why would I or others stay in academia without a liveable pension? I would have to look for a higher salaried job. For others it is worse. We are not talking a lot of money to live on in retirement in the current scheme. Reduce it by half and you ruin the sector. It is remarkable that this aspect has been missed by those who aren’t facing it themselves. We are not striking for a lot of money. But we are striking for absolutely necessary money, so we can eat and heat our homes in retirement.

  4. Useful article because lots to think about and, frankly, to disagree with; and that’s not only how Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman gets represented. Highly problematic the constant talk of ‘the sector’. Who and what is it? One fundamental truth I wholeheartedly agree with: ‘We must be led by values’. But then again: Can we envisage ‘the sector’s values’?

  5. “The enemy within…” – a Margaret Thatcher soundbite, used to describe Arthur Scargill (graduate of Leeds) and the NUM.

    Essentially the same story appeared last July:
    You can find equivalents in the US by searching theough Chronicle of Higher Education. Almost certainly other countries too.

    There’s a lot of bad news stories in the media about pretty much everything. Sometimes even bad news stories about bad news. But does anyone recall the Wonkhe July predecessor? Anyone share / tweet it? Bad news is basically a fix. People read it, forget it, and move on to the next fix.

    So here is some more news: bad news isn’t going away. Watch this space for the next version of the story. Regarding the proposed solutions, as evoked by the penultimate lines in the piece, if the problem is stopping bad news: ‘the answers are blowin’ in the wind’.

  6. Can’t agree that ‘it’ = Brexit was ‘a demand for change’ as Brexit is essentially nostalgic and backward looking in my view but, more to the point, amongst your alternative versions of HE you do not conceive of HE as a part of Tertiary level learning = lifelong higher and further continuing adult education and training.

  7. “We need to explore how we end the current system of academic selection and how to move to a comprehensive university system.”

    What exactly does this mean? There is already widespread public concern about dumbed down useless degrees, allied with the costs of getting one. The LEO shows whole swathes of higher education underwater against average earnings – to continue marketing those courses and institutions is little better than fraud.
    My son is just finishing an integrated Masters in Mechanical Engineering at a Bath.
    He got A*, A, A, B at A level [maths, physics, chemistry, further maths] and it has taken all that prior attainment and intellectual firepower to get him through the course.
    How can that possibly fit with “comprehensivisation” and ending “the current system of academic selection”? Either you dumb down the course, or your drop out rate goes through the roof as people can’t stand the pace. Neither is a good look.

    University education is nothing if not proudly, fiercely, elitist.

  8. I think any new system would need to aggressively combat this kind of elitism. The inability to think beyond the current system of exam grades leading admissions policies shows you have not fully understood the kind of changes being proposed.

    As nice as it is for you to feel your son is part of an elite, that comes at the expense of a huge number of people dismissed as less worthy of higher education. The idea would not be to lower standards but to create a HE system that would allow people to better identify their natural abilities and aptitudes and have every opportunity to nurture them in an environment that is focused more on collaboration than competition.

    That might mean finding new ways to locate an aptitude for the skills required in engineering in people who did not achieve the same high grades at your son. Has it ever occurred to you that achievement in exams may not be the only way to measure human capabilities?

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