A letter in the Daily Telegraph today by senior academics attacks the government’s attempt to raise tuition fees before publishing a full white paper and calls for a “Public Commission of Enquiry” into the place of universities in public life. The accompanying news story highlights the argument that the government has a “weak political mandate” for its proposed changes. See ‘below the fold’ for the text of the letter and signatories.
SIR – We need a Public Commission of Inquiry on the future of higher education. It is clear from the scale of last week’s largely peaceful demonstrations across Britain that there is enormous concern among young people over the future of higher education. They are not alone.
A wide range of commentators, public figures and academics have expressed closely argued reservations about the Government’s attempt to rush through changes, the far-reaching consequences of which are potentially so damaging.
Within universities there is considerable unease about what reforms based on the Browne report will mean. How might a “supply and demand” model for arts and humanities funding function in practice? Education and research institutions cannot be set up, shut down and restarted according to market demand.
British universities do not benefit from the enormous endowments of elite American institutions, which can help them adapt to change. With so much uncertainty about employment prospects and economic conditions, student numbers will ebb and flow. Higher education needs much greater stability.
The Higher Education Policy Institute – a respected independent think tank – has pointed out that government proposals for higher education funding “will increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next”. The income stream from repayments – which is supposed to form the long-term basis for higher education funding – will not come back to the Treasury for many years.
This undermines the argument that changes to higher education funding are concurrent with a deficit-reduction strategy in this parliament. Thus, there is no need to push through reforms with undue haste.
Given the nature of the promises made by the Coalition partners at the general election, there is a weak political mandate for change. It may be that all three major political parties would benefit from further time to develop policy in this area.
We therefore do not believe that present circumstances are propitious for far-reaching reforms. Instead, we suggest the Government set up a Public Commission of Inquiry, which should include wide consultations with politicians, academics, students, business leaders and others to examine the function and funding of higher education from first principles.
Such an approach would be far more likely to produce the consensus required to make reform deliverable and place higher education on a sustainable footing.
Sir Harold Kroto
Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Sussex (Nobel Prize 1996)
Sir Christopher Bayly
Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial History, University of Cambridge
Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature (1998-2008)
University of Oxford
Sir James Chadwick Professor of Physics, University of Liverpool
Regius Professor of Greek, University of Oxford
Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History, Princeton University
Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge
Professor of Genetics, University College London
Chair of the Faculty of History, University of Oxford
Wykeham Professor of Ancient History, University of Oxford
Massey Professor of Physics, University College London
Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities, University of London
Rhodes Professor of American History (2002-2009), University of Oxford
Professor of English Literature, University of Cambridge
Professor of Pharmacology, University College London
Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford
Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford
Senior Lecturer in American History, University College London
Lecturer in Medieval History, University College London
Lecturer in Twentieth Century British History, University College London
Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge
Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy, Bristol