The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Freedom, equality, choice and China

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By Rob Cuthbert

The Annual Conference of the Centre for Global Higher Education on 11 April was enough to reassure anyone that research into HE is in rude health. With a globally diverse audience of 250 or more at the UCL Institute of Education to talk about The new geopolitics of higher education, it was time well spent.

The Conference incorporated the annual Burton R Clark lecture, given this year by Michael Ignatieff, professor, presenter, public intellectual, politician and now President of the Central European University (CEU). The Hungarian election just two days earlier had given even more urgency to the Soros-funded CEU’s well-documented woes with the Orban government, now even more firmly entrenched. Ignatieff’s topic, Academic freedom and the future of Europe, prompted gloom before he allowed himself some glimmers of optimism as he argued persuasively for the role of universities as ‘counter-majoritarian’ institutions – like a free press and an independent judiciary, an essential counter-balance to majority rule.

Having obeyed the first law of conference organisation – get a big name to talk about something topical – the organisers then had much to cram into the rest of the day. A second plenary had a panel presenting on and discussing Higher education and equality, charged with asking: ‘What do we know now that we didn’t know before?’ Despite rather too much of what we did know before, it engaged the audience, and sparks flew in the Q&A when Emma Duncan from The Economist asked if we were willing to trade excellence for equity, prompting a splendid putdown from panellist Vikki Boliver (Durham). She pointed out that the question was the tired way the media always framed the equality debate, and we needed to take a different tack. Rajani Naidoo (Bath) pitched her passionate case to abandon the ’competition fetish’ and refocus on world class systems instead of ‘world class universities’. We could imagine David Watson cheering her on, with the complementary arguments he had more than once deployed in the very same lecture hall.

The organisers broke the second law of conference organisation, with yet another plenary straight after lunch, but they got away with it by asking Nian Cai Liu, author of the Shanghai Jiao Tong global university rankings, to talk about China’s ‘Double World Class’ project, aiming for a couple of dozen world class universities in China by 2025. Nian hadn’t got the Naidoo memo about world class universities, thus showing a refreshing diversity in the CGHE’s approaches, which was reinforced as he underlined the East’s faith in ranking systems, jarring with the cynicism of many from the West.

It was already early afternoon: with so much CGHE research to fit in, we divided into parallel sessions. Reluctant as many were to miss Income contingent loans across the world, we were not disappointed by The changing UK HE system: Michael Shattock on the changing face of governance, Stephen Hunt mapping the terrain of private HE providers, and William Locke and Celia Whitchurch addressing the future HE workforce. Then another forced choice: in Public and private goods, the pre-conference papers on the latter had exposed fascinating differences between East and West concepts of public and private good. But the rival attractions of Student learning and graduate work won out: Janja Komljenovic reporting research on student perceptions of themselves as consumers, or not; Diana Laurillard and Eileen Kennedy investigating the transformative potential of MOOCs for large-scale professional development; and Golo Henseke assessing labour market trends in Germany, using a different approach to deciding what counted as graduate jobs.

Defying the first law of conference participation – at least 20% of participants will leave an hour before the end – a still-full Jeffrey Hall gathered to hear Claire Callender’s (UCL IoE/Birkbeck) magisterial demolition of the UK policy obsession with student choice, which over 20 years had achieved the opposite of its stated intention, first restricting choice and then reproducing social inequality, especially through its devastation of part-time study.

Congratulations to CGHE for justifying the investment of ESRC and HEFCE in this showcase of so much that is good about globally collaborative research into HE. It is unlikely that the Office for Students will show the same willingness as HEFCE to invest in open-minded research. Enjoy it while you can.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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