higher ed,  politics

Rise up, Vice Chancellors, rise up!

(Not aimed at any person in senior management in particular, just the sector in general)

Like many of you I was tired, angry and infuriated by the recent Government announced crackdown on poor quality degrees. This was widely, and correctly, interpreted as an attack on arts and humanities. which typically don’t perform as well on the criteria of employment in ‘professional’ jobs. Creatives are often self-employed, take time to establish a reputation, and so on. Also, it’s part of the ‘war on woke‘ because those subjects are all wokey-lefty, dribble, dribble.

One saving grace of this Government however, is that rather like a sloth performing brain surgery, they combine extremely high levels of laziness and incompetence. They don’t actually want to do any of the hard work, policy making and monitoring it would take to enforce this nonsense – they just want the headlines and then move on to the next day’s target. David Kernohan wearily points out that they’ve had these powers for ages and have done very little with them. It was just headline fluff mostly.

But this was yet another reminder that the Government treats higher education with disdain. Certainly if they felt like the announcements were a winner then they would pursue them with more vigour. Remember that David Cameron gambled the whole financial and cultural future of the country by promising an EU referendum in order to win a long forgotten by-election. If they felt that a policy such as banning the teaching of evolution or Marxism would win them a couple of more seats they would jump at it without hesitation.

Universities have been very compliant over the past decade or so, rather like the BBC, they have operated a policy of appeasement. And how well has that worked out for the BBC? Has having Farage on every episode of Newsnight made him consider the BBC a balanced organisation? Has burying stories about corruption during the pandemic given them preferential treatment? The answer would seem to be a hard no – as any school child will tell you, voluntarily giving up your lunch to the bully doesn’t make them respect you. It just makes them realise they can do whatever they want.

Senior managers of universities have been far too acquiescent in accepting whatever new policy is enforced, metrics imposed, and legislation undermining their abilities to recruit overseas staff, students, and participate in research projects, while simultaneously creating additional reporting and monitoring workloads.

And for what benefit? Maybe an individual institution hasn’t been targeted but the sector as a whole has been lessened. We continually (often within the space of days) have new HE ministers who seem to actively view universities as the enemy.

Why are there not cabals of VCs plotting acts of resistance to actively undermine such policies? (I’m assuming there isn’t). This may seem fanciful, but it would be naive to assume that there aren’t secret meetings within Government doing the same to utilise universities as a weapon in the culture war. We occasionally get a strongly worded letter, but in general each demand is met and viewed as a possible way of gaining an advantage over other providers.

How often do Vice Chancellor job description criteria make it essential that the candidate should show strength in defending the mission of higher education from interference? Not as often as we get ones asking for experience in generating income and dealing with change. In the 70s (as I remember it) HE used to be a radical, politically charged sector. Now it comes across as a dog that’s been beaten too often. Maybe it’s an issue with the types of people we appoint as senior managers – often Russell Group educated, and those institutions are deeply aligned with the structures of power.

Higher education often undervalues itself. I blogged about how the sector panders too easily to the silicon valley desire to have a piece of its cake. Ed tech entrepreneurs want something in return (apart form the money), which in this case is validity and respectability. There is a version of undervaluing what the sector offers with regards to politics also. Even if they seem determined to undermine the sector, it generates a good deal of income. It provides international reputation. A large proportion of the public sides with it (although a good proportion views it as a cesspit of do-gooders). It’s not clear that a war with the universities would be one the Government would win.

I suppose VCs could be just waiting it out now – the Tories may be gone soon and hopefully a better relationship can be forged with a new Government. But I would suggest the sector as a whole needs to get back some of the spirit of resistance, because if we’ve learnt anything over the past decade it is that there is no law too draconian, now campaign too ridiculous, no policy too self harming and no politician too cruel if it can help cling on to power for even one day longer. I know it’s potentially dangerous to stand up, and particularly to be the first or most prominent to do so, but the policy of appeasement has been an abject failure.


  • Gavin Moodie

    Thanx for this.

    Indeed, ‘In the 70s (as I remember it) HE used to be a radical, politically charged sector’. But was the radical political charge from vice chancellors or from students and to a lesser extent from academics?

    • mweller

      Hi Gavin – yes, you’re right, but I suspect it was all part of a more radical culture that included VCs. It is generally (students included) a more conservative (with a small c) culture now, so such radicalism would be less tolerated both from the top or the bottom. That probably means the resistant has to come from higher up to be effective now.

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