Talk questions university and RAE system

Warwick PPE society hosted a talk last week, entitled The Neoliberlisation of Higher Education featuring Alex Callinicos, a Professor of European Studies at King’s College London.

Callinicos started with a brief introduction about the history neoliberalism in Britain, and how it has increased the gap between rich and poor members of society.

The main part of his talk then focused on the “systematic subordination of higher education to competition”. He warned that, as a rapidly growing research university, Warwick is particularly vulnerable to this process.

He explained how since the late 1980s, the government has created competition between universities, their departments and individual academics through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

This framework rates academics on their research performance, and has become the “most important single way in which universities have been forced to compete with each other”.

The amount of funding that each university receives from the government is a direct result of RAE performance.

Callinicos compared universities to Premier League football teams, as they “buy” academics to improve their RAE scores.

This sounds fine in principal, but he warned that it has “profound implications for students,” who become seen more as consumers, and get less contact time with top academics. This is similar to the American elite university system, where top academics boost the prestige of universities with research, but students are often taught by PhD students.

Academics at universities with lower RAE scores get less funding and have to spend more time teaching. Callinicos described how, as reported in the Boar last week, a hierarchy has emerged amongst universities, and the makeup of students is “systematically related to the income of parents”.

Richard Lambert, the recently-appointed chancellor of Warwick, was not spared criticism. Callinicos described how he wrote ‘The Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration’ with then Chancellor Gordon Brown, which recommended that businesses use universities more for research.

It advocated “harnessing knowledge to enterprise” and universities have been compared to carthorses pulling businesses along, which corrupts the focus on teaching students.

The talk also described how many universities overspend in an attempt to improve their RAE, but are then left out of pocket. To rectify this, they attempt to recruit more overseas students, who are not at university because they are valued students, but because they bring money.

The final criticism came in the way that universities are “drivers of precarious labour”, which leads to low pay, low job security and poor organisation.

Callinicos pointed out that over fifty per cent of teachers at UK universities are on non-permanent contracts. As well as this, following the reduction of student grants, students have contributed to precarious job market, both as workers and consumers.

Callinicos concluded by offering recommendations of what Warwick students can do to improve the situation, such as that is important to support the academics union, the UCU, and take inspiration from the World Social Forum that ‘another world is possible.

He said that he was encouraged by the recent sit-in protest for Gaza, and that students could get more involved in campaigning.

However, he did criticise the current role of Students’ Unions, which act as little more than service and entertainment providers rather than campaigning bodies .Students Union president-elect Andrew Bradley, who attended the talk, told the Boar that “we are going to have a healthy, vibrant campaigning environment at Warwick next year”.

The event’s organiser, Puneet Dhaliwal, told the Boar that “the talk went very well”, and that “the sizable audience engaged well with the talk.” He also said that the subject matter was extremely relevant to students “given Warwick University’s position at the vanguard of this process of neoliberalisation” which “affects, and will continue to affect, student interests in very immediate and material terms.”


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