Over the last few weeks, tensions have been rising in British universities. Now anger is boiling over.

The focus should be on what values our society expects to see reflected in our universities, not just value for money.

Prof Stephen Toope

As I write this, my office is surrounded by loud protesters – students and staff expressing frustration at recent proposals to resolve the university pensions dispute. Over the last decade, pensions have had to be restructured three times, effectively downgrading benefits while increasing costs. Pensions are a key component of academic compensation, and people are understandably annoyed.

My colleagues and I continue to seek a solution leading to a scheme that is both fair and viable in the long-term. Despite the failure of current talks between the Universities and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK, this must remain our goal.

However, it would be mistake to assume that the current anger directed at university leadership is all about staff pensions. Something more is happening on university campuses across the UK. Resentment has been building steadily, rooted in a widely shared sentiment that policies pursued by successive governments over two decades are fundamentally damaging British higher education.

I received a letter this week from the President of the Cambridge University Students’ Union. She argued that the strikes and demonstrations are “about the future of higher education, continued marketization and the move towards students as consumers.” It may surprise some to discover that I fully share her worries. I know that many of my friends and colleagues in universities across the country do, too.

For too long the damaging idea that students are “consumers” has been only weakly resisted. Being a “consumer” implies that students are nothing more than passive recipients of ideas delivered by lecturers. Yet, at its core, education is about active engagement of students with inherited knowledge, with new research, with other students, and with more senior academic guides and mentors. Of course, education is also about preparing students for life in the wider world, for careers, and for making a contribution to the community.

Reducing students to mere consumers only makes sense if the value of universities is simply economic. That would be a fundamental error. For centuries, universities have helped successive generations to achieve their potential in these places of breath-taking discovery and disruptive insight.

Cambridge’s own research has led to discoveries and inventions that have profoundly transformed our knowledge of ourselves, and of our world. But our universities do much more in striving to improve livelihoods and communities, domestically and globally.

Our students get it. That is why so many of them are worried that their own experience is being devalued.

For generations, the rest of the world has looked up to the British higher education system. It is far from perfect, I agree. But, collectively, UK universities have long been a by-word for excellent teaching and learning, and for creative research.

As a relative newcomer to this country, I can say that no other society has been so defined by its universities as the UK’s. That is why we still attract thousands of students from around the world. That is why we have continued to welcome research and teaching talent from across the globe.

But for a generation now, politicians of all stripes have talked as if UK universities are broken, and hence in need of “market discipline”. They talk as if our students, smart and energetic people, are in need of protection. This is an own goal.

We are just beginning yet another review covering higher education that fails to get to the heart of concerns around the role of universities.  The focus should be on what values our society expects to see reflected in our universities, not just value for money. 

We need a broader debate about the role of universities in the UK. We live in times of great uncertainty. But our universities have the capacity to work across society to discover creative ways forward. Universities are not the problem. We are part of the solution.

An edited version of this post was published today (16 March 2018) in the letters section of a national newspaper.

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