Willetts on more will mean worse

David Willetts loves Universities.  He tells us that in the opening sentence of his book ‘A University Education’.  This will be an important book, I’m sure.  It’s also unusual.  Willetts is a plausible author, a minister who, despite the extraordinary rancour of the debates about higher education in his four years, left the post generally respected, if not wholly agreed with.  Imagine how Jeremy Hunt’s big book of the NHS would go down, or a Liz Truss study of the Judiciary for comparison.

There are reviews already – Nigel Thrift in the THE and Andy Westwood for HEPI for example.  This is not going to be a review.  I do want to draw people’s attention to Willett’s robust critique of the ‘more will mean worse’ argument.  A large part of the book is spent defending why it’s worth going to university, and he takes on Kingsley Amis (and his contemporary followers) firmly.  Amis had thought that academic standards were going to be harmed beyond repair as we moved to 5% of the population going to university, now we are close to 50%.  Willetts writes:

We can concede something very important to Kingsley Amis, however. Setting aside his anxieties about their effects, he was the first writer to observe one of the great educational and social changes in post-war Britain – the shift from elite to mass higher education. It is a crucial change in the character of the university which is not widely appreciated or understood.  When we see photographs of the M1 in the years immediately after it was opened we are amazed at how quiet and empty it looks and perhaps dream of being the solitary driver cruising past Luton in 1960. The M1 was expected to carry 20,000 cars per day and is now taking 140,000 – growth on a similar scale to higher education.  But we know there is no going back and that if we were such a solitary driver we would be in a country that was actually very different and deeply impoverished compared with what we all now enjoy (or we would think an epidemic had broken out and nobody had bothered to tell us).  We don’t just have more university places and more cars – we also have more TV channels, more foreign travel, more supermarkets, more information, more books, and more films – the shift from elite to mass is one of the features of modern capitalism and we cannot and should not stop it in higher education any more than anywhere else.
Willetts, D, 2017, A University Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press pp 143-144

No doubt we will debate many aspects of the book, but let’s remember that David Willetts has set out to defend the move from an elite to an universal higher education system.  That alone makes this welcome.


Student petitions – the paradox of publicity

Petitions are an ancient way of gathering support for an issue. I’ve never been that thrilled by them; it’s a particularly passive form of engagement, but they have their place.

I remember that there was always a petition to sign when I was a student – I inhabited the students union and collecting petitions was a standard activity of societies of all types (I always wondered whether it was more likely that a foreign dictatorship would release a political prisoner than the university would get a new vending machine as a result of a petition).

But the routine of students standing outside the Union at lunchtime trying to slow down progress towards the sandwich shop has been replaced by the online petition. This has two main effects; firstly the things have proliferated – it’s so easy to do, you don’t even have to find a clipboard. Secondly, it’s so easy to distribute – and here a problem begins.

Students are at the leading edge of many changes in our society. Much of the activism that I remember from university is now mainstream, but then the anti-apartheid activists or hunt saboteurs were viewed as dangerous lunatics.

Now the media can seize on ‘dangerous lunatics’ to feed its constant hunger for content. One student had gathered 50 signatures this week on a petition to take Gladstone’s name off a building before the press caught hold of it. This generates news items and columnists, fitting into a narrative of student activism that has generated so much heat (think Cecil Rhodes).

Examples abound: a vegan student at Hertfordshire worries about the welfare of reindeer at a Christmas market. This is in the local paper today, but give it a ‘students against Christmas’ theme and it could go global. She might be safe, but if she was on a JCR committee at an Oxford College it would, apparently, be obligatory to cover this.

But this leaves a problem behind. The stories left online can create a false narrative. A student petition complaining about Germaine Greer giving a lecture transmogrifies into Cardiff University banning her – such that its VC found himself at Parliament’s Human Rights Committee with the free speech activists of Spiked! See the horror here: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/214a7bfe-da17-40f3-8022-1915a59e683a

I think there’s more of an edge to the use of these stories today. The University feels embattled within a post-truth, anti-expert narrative, which in the US is explicitly being linked to the Alt-right movement.

Students are caught between a prurient fascination with young people’s lifestyles and a horror of their supposed ultra-censorious behaviour. Flick through a list of student societies and you’ll see that they want to end sexual harassment, racial abuse, inequality, cruelty to animals, nuclear weapons, climate change, deforestation, poverty, etc. These students represent hope, yet they are mocked. They are both ‘snowflakes’ and dangerous lunatics simultaneously.

Here’s the paradox; I want students to keep on doing what they’re doing – pushing the edges of human behaviour. Their campaigns will be many and various, wonderful and wacky. I want the media to cover that – you can’t campaign in secret – but maybe stop generalising from a small campaign to to the totality to students and, especially, the universities at which they study.

Why do the University title rules not apply to those nice former footballers?

We know the Government is keen on Alternative Providers, but why have they bestowed such a large favour on University Academy 92 by allowing it to include the word ‘University’ in its company title?

John Morgan followed up on this in the THE:

Questions have been raised about the Department for Education’s decision to allow UA92 to use the word “university” in its title (the DfE has said it did so on the grounds of Lancaster’s involvement).

UA92 does not yet formally exist (recruitment is scheduled to begin in January 2018, with courses starting in the autumn of that year) and does not have its own degree-awarding powers. So, is “university” the right word?

“It is a university,” replied Mr Neville. “We’ve got permission from the DfE to be able to use the word ‘university’…The reason we have the word ‘academy’ in there is because we’ve got a 16-18 offering as well.”

How does this work?  We know that there are currently two routes to full University title.  A higher education corporation may ask the Privy Council to use the powers it has as part of the Further & Higher Education Act (FHEA) 1992; the criteria are issued by the DfE and they gather advice through a process run by the QAA.  A company also goes through the QAA process, but the DfE’s advice culminates in a ‘non-objection’ to the use of the sensitive word ‘university’ under the terms of the 2006 Companies Act.

So, Mr Neville is wrong.  UA92 is not a university.  It does not have degree awarding powers, so it cannot be awarded university or university college title.  But DfE has given permission for the use of the word ‘university’ in the title anyway.  How?

The use of ‘University’ is prohibited for entities that are doing higher education.  In this way University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are not in breach of the FHEA, although there are criteria for their designation.  University hospitals are not universities, The University Arms Hotel is not a university etc etc.

A potentially confusing development has been the agreement that FECs can call their HE offering a ‘University Centre‘ or sometimes a ‘University Campus’.  There are some criteria for these, but it’s not clear that these are being enforced.


So if UA92 is not a university, a university college, a university centre, or a university technical college, how does it get ‘university’ in its title?  We’re told it’s because of its link to Lancaster University.  Surely that can’t stand?  Lancaster are operating as a partner to UA92 in much the same way that many universities are to their partners.  What’s to stop them applying to DfE to get a ‘non-objection’ to the inclusion of ‘university’ in their company names?   

Maybe DfE could publish their rationale for why UA92 gets to have ‘university’ in its title?  Will it feature a reasoned argument or just a special case for a bunch of former footballers?