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One problem with the Browne report is that it didn’t consider the whole picture. It looked only at how to fund universities as they are now, and concluded that arts and humanities weren’t worth funding at all. What it failed to do (and to be fair, it wasn’t asked to do) was think what universities should be like. Perhaps that is just as well, given Browne’s views, but it means that the job is only half done.

I have argued that the present system, which was essentially dictated by John Major’s conservative government, is simply not working for an age when 45 percent of kids go into higher education. It makes no sense to decide on a funding mechanism before deciding what sort of university system we want.

Michael Collins is a lecturer in 20th Century history at UCL. On November 23rd he wrote a very interesting piece on the OpenDemocracy web site, Universities need reform – but the market is not the answer. He said

“As students begin a wave of occupations in university campuses across the UK, Michael Collins argues that academics should stand united in determined opposition to government cuts, but at the same time make a positive contribution to thinking about how the existing system of teaching and research can be reformed and restructured.”

His suggestions have much in common with mine, though mine were a bit more specific. I wrote about some concrete proposals in the Times Thunderer column. This is available without pay wall on this blog. (this was  on October 11th, before the Browne report was published). .I immediately contacted Collins and we met on 25 November and the same day he published, again on OpenDemocracy, We need a Public Commission of Enquiry on the future of higher education. That was distilled into a letter and I spent most of the next day trying to get some support from scientists. A Saturday close to Christmas isn’t the best time to get responses to emails, but the result was satisfactory nonetheless.

On Monday 29th November the letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph

We need a Public Commission of Enquiry on the future of higher education

It is clear from the scale of last week’s largely peaceful demonstrations across Britain that there is an enormous amount of concern amongst young people over the future of higher education. They are not alone.

A wide range of commentators, politicians, 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 so uncertain and 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. With so much uncertainty about future employment prospects and economic conditions, student numbers will ebb and flow. Higher education needs greater stability.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) ­ a respected independent think tank ­ has pointed out that the government’s 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 funding ­ will not come back to the treasury for many years to come.

This weakens the argument that planned changes to higher education funding are necessarily concurrent with a deficit reduction strategy in this parliament. The pledges on university tuition fees made at the 2010 general election mean the mandate for change is weak. We therefore do not believe that present circumstances are propitious for far reaching reforms.

Instead, we propose the government set up a Public Commission of Enquiry, 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 more likely to produce the consensus required to make reform deliverable and place the future of UK higher education on a sustainable footing.

Sir Harold Kroto KCB FRS, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Sussex (Nobel Prize 1996)

Sir Christopher Bayly FBA FRSL, Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial History, University of Cambridge

Hermione Lee CBE FBA FRSL, Goldsmith’s Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford (1998-2008)

John Dainton FRSA FRS, Sir James Chadwick Professor of Physics, University of Liverpool

Christopher Pelling FBA, Regius Professor of Greek, University of Oxford

Quentin Skinner FBA, Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities, University of London

Linda Colley FBA, Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History, Princeton University

Jonathan Tennyson FRS, Massey Professor of Physics, University College London

Christopher Wickham FBA, Chair of the Faculty of History, University of Oxford

Richard Carwardine FBA, Rhodes Professor of American History, University of Oxford (2002-2009)

Mary Beard FBA, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics, University College London

Stefan Collini FBA, Professor of English Literature, University of Cambridge

David Colquhoun FRS, Professor of Pharmacology, University College London

Robert Gildea FBA, Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford

J. N. Adams FBA, Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford

The letter in the Telegraph was accompanied by a front page story (despite competition from Wikileaks and the snow).


For a Tory newspaper, it was surprisingly sympathetic.

Meanwhile, the student occupations continue. More of that in the next post.


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7 Responses to Higher education needs a public commission before fees are trebled

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Colquhoun, gimpy, Neil O'Connell, Dorothy Bishop, Fiona Brown and others. Fiona Brown said: RT @david_colquhoun: A solution to the university fees crisis? http://bit.ly/dLKxpV @DrEvanHarris @JulianHuppert @Nick_Clegg […]

  • davenewman says:

    Two things for a commission to consider:

    1. Should everyone do a degree at 18, or later in life? E.g. everyone does a vocational qualification after school to learn the skills needed right now. Then years later, they learn how to learn new things at a university, as their vocation becomes obsolete.

    2. Use continuous professional development as an extra funding source for universities. Let all degrees expire if people haven’t taken refresher courses and passed exams. The more power a job has, or the more you get paid, the faster the degree expires. Degrees for the poor last all their lives. But the degrees of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries expire in 10 years – from then on they will need to take CPD courses every year, and prove they are competent to govern in the 21st century.

  • charlestonjigger says:

    Over christmas last year I watched a series of lectures in Principles of Chemical Science from MIT on a service called ItunesU. They were utterly fantastic and on a level that was far superior to the ones I had paid a lot of money for 10 years ago.

    In a world where anyone can watch these lectures and download books – legal or otherwise – on topics that are expanding all the time Universities need to rethink what it is they are doing that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

    In my opinion they are currently a bit delusional if they think they are worth the proposed trebling of fees. The fact that 45% are going to university has, in my experience, devalued their main selling point – interaction. Despite the occasional access to a rabbit gut im not sure if your 9k gets you more than what some motivation and ItunesU will get you.

  • Avoided Cranium says:

    “a system simply not working for an age when 45 percent of kids go to University”

    That 45-50% idea, plucked out of thin air by Tony Blair, is the root of the problem.

    There’s a lot of fuzzy thinking about education in terms of elitism, rights etc.
    Many of the concepts have been imported from a commercialised American educational system, which exploited the civil rights movement’s aspirations towards a much more dumbed down egalitarian sausage machine where any incoming human meat could be deemed to be ‘educated’ with application of standardised processes, regardless of the raw material.
    Notably, American Ivy-league establishments stayed isolated from the social engineering.
    We should do the same.

  • @Avoided Cranium
    For once I don’t quite agree. Of course 50% is arbitrary, but over the last 200 years there has been a continuous increase in guesses about the proportion of the population that can benefit from some sort of higher education. I’d rather change the system than the 50%.

  • […] sc_project=233721; sc_invisible=0; sc_partition=0; sc_security=""; ← Higher education needs a public commission before fees are trebled […]

  • […] ideas of what could be done to further their aims. It was the same day that our letter came out in the Daily Telegraph, that pointed out the foolishness of deciding on funding before deciding what form universities […]

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