Convention foreword and welcome – Sean Wallis

We are at a critical juncture for the future of Higher Education. In the US, the model of state-backed tuition fees and private sector provision, particularly the expansion of the for-profit sector, has proved extraordinarily lucrative. However, in the UK, the for-profits face barriers to entry. The HE Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential, assumes that the expansion of private providers is both necessary and good, to ‘raise quality’, and sets out mechanisms (including the TEF) for smoothing the path for these providers.

But this premise is opposed across the UK HE sector. The consultation received 600 responses. The WonkHE website enumerates 31 sector bodies, 9 learned scientific societies and 13 universities (a non-exhaustive list), the vast majority scathing in their criticism.

In 26,500 words, there are 168 references to ‘quality’ – but not a single definition. ‘Risk’, another watchword for Jo Johnson, appears 27 times. Follow the references and links, and you eventually find a definition: the commercial risk to an investor.

We are united in our belief that there are huge risks in this policy. Risks for students –encouraged to apply to institutions run solely for the maximisation of profit – risks for staff compelled to work for these institutions – risks for academic freedom and freedom of thought in the sector in a race to the bottom – and risks for UK society as a whole.

This Convention has been organised by an ad hoc organising committee formed by members of the Campaign for the Public University, Council for Defence of British Universities and the UCU trade union. Our aim is to bring together a broad range of critical voices within academia united around a single purpose: to stop these dangerous and destructive policies and to defend the values of UK Higher Education.

Today is a chance for debate, but also to discuss action. We expect BIS to reply to its critics by launching a White Paper, in May, with the same premises and conclusions as the Green Paper. We also expect that the Government will push for primary legislation in the next Parliamentary session (i.e. in the Autumn). The weakness of the arguments made by Jo Johnson et al is not an indication of their lack of determination!

We have an essential task on our hands. We must organise to rally our colleagues behind the cause of HE. We need the biggest visible, public, opposition, inside our institutions exerting democratic and collegial pressure on Senior Management Teams, and outside, demanding our MPs side with us against this dangerous policy. Together we can win.

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About Sean

Senior Research Fellow, Survey of English Usage, University College London
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