The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay

A period of reflection


By Ian McNay

At the beginning of what some people mistakenly think of as the beginning of a new decade – who counts to ten by starting at zero and finishing at nine? – the pressure is to reflect on the past and project for the future. I am going to mainly eschew the former, but do have concerns for the next five or ten years. In other countries where a populist government has been elected, and moved to authoritarianism, such as Hungary, Turkey, or even the USA, the auguries are not good for higher education. I am not claiming that the new UK administration is as extreme as those examples, but the indications are there about its attitude to dissenting voices – the BBC and Channel 4 coverage of the election, elected parliamentarians defying the party whip, and even the supreme court, to whose rulings the government has twice had to conform, reluctantly, in the interests of constitutional democracy. The manifesto commitment to reviewing the organs of government and the judiciary has been seen by some as ominous.

Whatever the politics, there are other reasons to be concerned for HE. The eight years since fees were last tripled, to £9,000, have been fairly comfortable, financially, for most universities, if not their staff at the sharp end of operations. Marginal costs per student will often be low, especially in non-STEM subjects, so surpluses expand with every expansion of numbers. The Augar Report recommendations, if accepted, may lower fees with little guarantee that government will cover the loss of income. The cost of student loans, some of which now comes within current public spending, will increase dramatically with the demographic bulge in 18-year-olds, starting now, unless the cap on numbers in England is re-imposed, as seems likely, given views on ‘useless’ degrees, unnecessary experts, and pressure to prefer apprenticeships and FE recovery over investing in people who, on graduation, are less likely to vote Conservative than those without a university education. Graduates move to cities where there are jobs, leaving their home communities to an ageing population with different political predilections, made evident in December, and considerable resentment against what they see as graduate elitists in Westminster disregarding their needs and views. That may then convert to resentment against the universities that produce them and whose students affect the availability of property to rent and ‘studentify’ sections of a community. If the low rate of HE access of white working class males, and ‘over-representation’ of British BAME students is added to the mix, there is a base for Powellite stirring in a search for somebody to blame.

HE will not, then, be a high priority among competing, vote-winning, initiatives. Savings from not having to give EU students access to UK loans may not be re-invested. Even for research, where specific protective commitments have been made, the loss of EU funding and the greater difficulty in recruiting and partnering internationally because of visa restrictions, the prospects are not good. UK universities have already begun to drop down international league tables, and there is little reason to believe that that trend will stop. If income becomes tight, consider where funds might come from and the political risks of dependence on Chinese students and partnerships, or grants from oil rich regimes in the Middle East, or big pharma to a greater extent than now. Governors and senior managers will be faced with moral issues, testing the robustness of asserted values.

If universities are to overcome being seen as part of the problem, what has to change? Over the end of year break, I have been reading a collection of essays arising from an event 50 years after Chomsky published ‘The responsibility of intellectuals’. . That is the book’s title; it is edited by Nicholas Allott, Chris Knight, and Neil Smith, published by UCL Press. For us, as individuals who might be regarded as intellectuals, the three responsibilities set out by Chomsky remain: ‘to speak truth and expose lies; to provide historical context, and to lift the veil of ideology’ (Allott et al, 2019:7). The context has changed in 50 years: we ‘speak’, as do others, on social media, where regulation is lax; truth must be told to the powerless as well as the powerful, needing a different level of discourse; there is recognition that ‘the elite need to have an accurate idea of what is going on’ (p10) which means listening to others’ legitimate and valid truths derived from an experience, a background and axioms that differ from those of the people in power; and there is need for active engagement with that alternative reality, not just commentary from a distance, however sympathetic. This may lead to a better informed and value-oriented set of intellectuals.

At institutional level, that applies within universities, too. The gap between the governors, including the senior managers, and the governed is dysfunctional – can you name, say, three lay governors? When did you last speak with one? Some years ago, I reviewed the work of the Greenwich governing body, as recommended in the Dearing Report. It was clear that there was no communication with the governed, either up or down, no communication with ‘constituencies’, since governors could not identify their constituency. There was only an oral report on Academic Board meetings, by the VC, with all other information for the governors coming from the SMT, sometimes incomplete, at times misleading. SMT/staff communication has improved, but is still poor and unsystematic, avoiding anything that might highlight negatives.

As with many modern universities, there are two seats on Academic Board for professors elected by and from the professoriate; this year, as too often in the past, there were no nominations, nobody willing to stand, for a body that has no power beyond ‘advising’ the CEO and where the 1988/92 laws require there to be a majority of people with management responsibilities … on an academic board. My work with staff in many universities suggests that disengagement is widespread: academics have reverted to being what Hoyle labelled ‘restricted professionals’ – classroom based and classroom bound, by choice, since there is a fear of repercussions/reprisals if there is any expression of dissent. So compliance produces conformity, not the creative diversity essential to a healthy academic community. That may also develop at corporate level with the increasingly intrusive regulation by the Office for Students. Interviewing vice chancellors some years ago, even then there was a fear of speaking against ministerial policy, which might result in financial discrimination against their university. There might also be targeted supplementary ‘regulation’ (=control) from the Office for Students. Only in England, of course, which already has more surveillance from government and its agencies than other parts of the UK, as shown by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath in their 2019 book The Governance of British Higher Education. Possibly as a factor of size, but only partly, I suspect, transferring Chomsky’s concern over ideology to this context, there is also – Shattock and Horvath, again – less solidarity among the different mission groups, who act like ideological factions in a political party. Perhaps some reflections on common values (echoing urgings in one such party) might bring them together. I recommend reading chapter 5 of the Dearing Report as a basis for a period of reflection on values in an academic (and political) community.

I wish you a good new year, with hope that my concerns prove to be unfounded.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich

Author: SRHE News Blog

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

2 thoughts on “A period of reflection

  1. Ian, naturally I go along with most of your comments! But let me just stand up for lay governors – I am one. We had an external review recently of the work of our board, the report of which could be summed up as “could try harder”. All the points the reviewers made – some echoing your point about communication with the staff – were in a sense fair enough, but seemed to me to assume that board members were in that role pretty much full-time. Of course, we aren’t: about half of us have demanding full-time jobs, some based not in the UK (no-one wants a board made up of retired old geezers like me) and struggle to attend about one meeting a month. Most of us anyway do not live round the corner from the University, so attending even a short meeting is effectively a day’s (of course, unpaid) work – and the University even tries to help by sometimes arranging meetings in more convenient locations. So I’m saying that if you want the level of engagement of governors that you’re asking for, universities will have to move to the NHS Trust model of paying a realistic fee in return for which there will be a commitment for (say) five days a month on campus. Do you think that would lead to better outcomes? I’m not sure…



    • Paul, Reciprocating, I agree with most of what you say; and I too, have been a governor, elected by colleagues, whose knowledge based contributions were deemed ‘biased’ as from an interested party.I did also spend some time trying to brief lay governors in later work as well as doing a funded project on governor training needs. I was bothered by another project where several of the vice chancellors I interviewed dismissed lay governors, becasue of their limitations derived from the factors you list ‘they haven’t got time to learn enough to comment intelligently’; ‘they are only here for four meetings a year’.
      I think some payment for loss of earnings can be justified; an increase in staff governors would also help them to have a more balanced input from those inside the community they govern, to help close the communication gap. The governing body on which I served met in the afternoon, but never visibly to staff and students. Perhaps if all such bodies had at least one meeting where their lunch was taken amid the hurley-burley of campus life, that would help. So would attachment to an academic unit in which they developed some knowledge in depth. The institutions offering courses in creative and performing arts do better at linking the internal and external because many governors are alumni, some do guest teaching sessions, and they also book music students for family events. Some universities also have governors with sufficient esteem externally to bring authority to their comments; they are rare in others, conscious that tomorrow they will revert to being an employee in organisations where, if recent reports are right, fear is the watchword.

      Go well


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