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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Cronyism, academic values and the degradation of debate

by Rob Cuthbert

The pandemic has accelerated many trends which were already apparent, such as the switch away from the high street to online purchasing, and in HE the move to on-line, remote and asynchronous learning. The influence of social media has also accelerated, partly or wholly replacing the normal policy business of face-to-face discussion and debate. But perhaps the most significant change of all for HE has been the accelerating decline in the quality of regulation, governance and policy debate.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 may come to be seen as the high water mark of a particular kind of policymaking which has been ebbing rapidly ever since: the tide has gone out on deliberative and measured debate. A majority in HE strongly opposed marketisation, but the Act was the culmination of a long period of debate which at least gave credence to opposing views and saw them represented in discussion inside and outside Parliament. The market ‘reforms’ were promoted by ministers – David Willetts and Jo Johnson in particular – who had at least grudging respect from many in the system, because of their own respect for academe, however partial it sometimes seemed. And much though we might regret the marketisation changes and seek their reversal, we might also accept that they were enacted by a government which had a mandate for change explicitly endorsed by the electorate. But that was then.

In 2019 the government was returned with a sufficient majority to ‘get Brexit done’, which it did, much to the dismay of most in higher education. HE’s dominant Remainer sentiment no doubt helped to fuel disregard in Whitehall for HE opinion. What is often wrongly still called ‘debate’ has been polarised, accentuated by social media’s echo chambers during the lockdown. In the ‘culture war’ both sides have dug their trenches and hoisted the ‘no surrender’ flags. In HE this has diverted attention away from the real and massive problems of the student experience in the pandemic, and towards the misrepresented and overstated issue of free speech, academic freedom and diversity of opinion. The supposed justification for recent free speech initiatives in HE has been amply covered elsewhere, and is summarised in SRHE News 44 (April 2021).

In this culture war academics and academic institutions have their share of blame. The Policy Exchange ‘research’, cited in support for the Secretary of State’s recent announcements, shoddy though it was, nevertheless pointed to the issue of Remainer conformism in much British academic culture, in which some staff have self-censored their support for Brexit. I tried much earlier to parody this conformism, arguing that “perhaps the best thing to do was to accept the will of the people, freely expressed”. But democracy depends on the willing consent of the governed, and the governed in HE are increasingly unwilling to consent to changes in which their views are simply ignored. There is no shortage of comment on new policy initiatives; the HE sector is comparatively well-served by think tanks such as HEPI and WonkHE, as the recent CGHE seminar on ‘Universities in Medialand’ suggested. But there is little sign that government takes note of policy commentary which contradicts its current narrative, even when obvious contradictions are pointed out. Thus, for example, market forces must rule, except when students choose the ‘wrong’ universities. The student experience is paramount, except  when students report high levels of satisfaction – so the National Student Survey, until yesterday a crucial element for teaching excellence, must today be rubbished.

Nowhere has the contempt for opposing views been more obvious than in the appointment of a new Chair for the Board of the Office for Students. The notes to the 2017 Act establishing the OfS explained that: “This Act creates a new non-departmental public body, the Office for Students (OfS), as the main regulatory body, operating at arm’s length from Government, and with statutory powers to regulate providers of higher education in England.” (emphasis added). The first OfS chair was Sir Michael Barber. It was rumoured that Barber sought a second term but was denied. Who might be appropriate to take on the role? Another respected figure with experience of HE and of working with government, able to sustain that arm’s length role for the Office? Former UUK chair Sir Ivor Crewe (former VC, Essex) was interviewed, as Sonia Sodha and James Tapper reported for The Observer on 14 February 2021: “Perhaps it was the long passage in Professor Sir Ivor Crewe’s book The Blunders of Our Governments about the way ministers’ mistakes never catch up with them that led Gavin Williamson to reject the expert as the new head of the Office for Students. Or maybe the education secretary was put off by the section of the 2013 book, written with the late Anthony King, dealing with how ministers put underqualified, inexperienced people in charge of public bodies. The job of independent regulator of higher education in England was instead handed to James Wharton, a 36-year-old former Tory MP with no experience in higher education who ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.” The selection panel had been criticised for its dominant reliance on government supporters rather than HE expertise, but the chair-designate was nevertheless still to have his appointment endorsed by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee.

The Committee’s approval was very likely but could not be taken for granted, and Nick Hillman made some sensible proposals in his HEPI blog on 12 January 2021 on ‘How to grill the prospective chair of OfS’. We’d have suggested grilling on both sides, but presumably Boris Johnson’s campaign manager only has one side. The Education Select Committee duly questioned Lord Wharton of Yarm on 5 February 2021 and endorsed his appointment, which was announced by OfS on 8 February 2021. Rob Merrick reported for The Independent on 2 February 2021 that Lord Wharton had been subject to ‘hard questioning’, in the course of which he said he didn’t see why he could not retain the whip, nor why his role as Boris Johnson’s campaign manager should raise any conflict of interest issues.

So the ‘independent’ regulator was to have a partisan chair who proposed to retain the government whip. Conflict-of-interest issues raised themselves almost immediately, with wider ripples than expected. Lord Wharton had just been installed as Chair when he was revealed to be a paid adviser to a company seeking to build a cable connection through land at the University of Portsmouth. The company, Aquind, has a £1.2billion project to connect the electricity grids of the UK and France. It wants to put a cable across University of Portsmouth land, which the University opposes because of the disruption it would cause. Portsmouth Council and local Conservative and Labour MPs all oppose the project. Aquind director Alexander Temerko is a Conservative Party donor, whose website has several pictures of him with Lord Wharton, and also pictures him with the Prime Minister and Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. The planning dispute, involving possible compulsory purchase, has reached the Secretary of State for Business, but the previous incumbent Alok Sharma had to recuse himself from the case because his constituency party had received £10,000 from Temerko. Sean Coughlan told the story for the BBC on 19 February 2021, noting also that: “Conservative MP David Morris, another recipient of a donation, had to apologise to the House of Commons for a breach of paid advocacy rules after asking a question in support of the Aquind cable project.”

Lord Wharton’s appointment was greeted with incredulity in HE, but attracted little interest more broadly; in macropolitical terms the chair of OfS is a small bauble. And there were of course already many higher-profile reports of cronyism in government. The difficulty for HE is that the regulator may now be driven further and faster to unrealistic extremes. OfS, obediently pursuing its statutory responsibilities and ‘having regard to ministers’, is already in danger of leaving HE realities behind:

  • On 14 January 2021 the OfS wrote to universities and other HE providers, hard on the heels of a DfE letter to OfS, saying that the regulator expected institutions “to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their provision and to inform students about their options for refunds or other forms of redress where it has not been possible to provide what was promised.” Universities are losing tens of millions every week during the lockdown, without the kind of support provided for many other sectors, and on student hardship “the government can never quite resist overselling the multiple purposes to which the money might meaningfully be put”, as David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson argued in their WonkHE blog on 2 February 2021.
  • The OfS consultation document issued on 26 March 2021 put into practice the ‘instructions’ received earlier from Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. It proposed to steer more funds to STEM subjects and, among other things, halve additional funding for performing arts, media studies and archaeology courses. WonkHE’s David Kernohan was quick off the mark with his critical analysis on 26 March 2021.
  • OfS announced on 30 March 2021 that after the first phase of a review of the NSS, commissioned by Universities Minister Michele Donelan, there would be ‘major changes’ including dropping all references to ‘student satisfaction’. Of course, consistent reports that 85% or more of students in most universities are satisfied with their experience would be embarrassing for a government determined to prove otherwise.
  • OfS Director Regulation Susan Lapworth blogged for WonkHE on 31 March 2021 about a new condition of registration which would allow OfS to step in where a provider was at risk of failure, not to rescue the provider but to prevent a ‘disorderly’ closure. OfS had consulted on the proposal, which was not supported by most respondents, but went ahead anyway. The condition affects only the failing provider. Two obvious problems: (1) failing providers might not be inclined or well-placed to take the protective measures which OfS deems necessary; (2) previous experience shows that students need help from other institutions to facilitate transfers, but the Condition is silent on other institutions. They will often be willing, but might be unable to help without further support.

In the past funding councils were statutorily responsible for in effect providing a buffer between HE and government, to regulate excesses on either side. There is no danger of ‘provider capture’ in the new framework, the risk now is that the arm’s-length relationship with government has very short arms. Recent US experience shows the danger of such closeness. The Obama administration’s tighter regulation of for-profit HE after well-publicised shortcomings were swiftly reversed by Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but Joe Biden is now progressively restoring Obama’s closer regulation. Such to-ing and fro-ing simply creates a more disorderly system for students to navigate.

We can learn a better lesson from the US: Michelle Obama’s dictum “when they go low, we go high”. We need to reinforce our support for academic values across the sector by continuing to show respect for opposing views, and to win cases by argument rather than by seeing who can shout loudest on social media. We have examples in the way that, for example, Eric Lybeck (Manchester) has offered to debate free speech with the authors of the Policy Exchange report. We also need to broaden the base of explicit opposition, and not leave it to the usual suspects: in particular, we need university leaders to step up and speak out more than they do.

It is often true that leaders can be more persuasive in private conversations than public speeches, but in current circumstances leaders, especially vice-chancellors, need to be more concerned that they will lose the confidence of staff and students if they fail to speak out publicly. There are honourable exceptions, but too many vice-chancellors seem to be more interested in avoiding blame than speaking out about real problems. It is certainly not easy, operating in the space between government, staff or student disapproval and social media pile-ons from the left or right; just one past or present remark or action, if uncovered or reinterpreted, could be career-ending. But that is why our leaders are well paid – to pursue the best interests of the institution and the people in it, not to be silenced just because the  problems are very difficult, nor out of fear or self-interest. We have recently seen research leaders not hesitating to speak out about proposed cuts in research funding – and those cuts have now been reversed. We need more people, leaders and staff on all sides, to speak truth to power – not just playing-to-the-gallery ‘our truth’, but a truth people inside and outside HE will find persuasive.

Rob Cuthbert is an independent academic consultant, editor of SRHE News and Blog and emeritus professor of higher education management. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and of SRHE. His previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.