Tensions between management, staff and students at Warwick University were voiced on Friday 13 May in a debate entitled “The Future of the Public University”. Vice Chancellor, Nigel Thrift, argued for the need to accept privatisation, co-operate and move forward, a view that conflicted with those of the other speakers, as well as many of the lecturers and students in the audience.
In reaction to “the radical challenges and changes” that face British universities, Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) attempted to encourage students and staff “to think about the future of higher education”, by hosting a debate on the subject. There were four speeches before the floor was opened for questions.
Nigel Thrift opened proceedings and gave a grim verdict on the future of the public university, saying: “There is not much hope of education as a public good”. He argued that public universities would not be sustainable in light of increased student numbers and that most universities around the world were “some sort of public-private hybrid”. Warwick, Thrift said: “receives 23 percent of its revenue from the government and is a private, non for
profit institution in all but name”.
The Vice Chancellor criticised the media, students and lecturers who are still resisting privatisation for trying to “defend the patch”. He said that the public does not have the appetite for the tax rises required to fund higher education and that complaining can “seem self-interested”.
Instead, Thrift claimed, universities should be looking forward at the challenges that still face them, such as “being grand economic actors while maintaining enlightenment values” and “learning to be multi-locational actors”. He signified the need for universities to establish a consistent goal for the next 5-10 years, resist government regulation and push for a wider choice of funding packages.
The University of Warwick has long been regarded as a pioneer for the privatisation of higher education. Only five years into its life, the University’s management was subject to a damning critique, entitled ‘Warwick University Ltd.’ The book argues that the University represses the political activity and desires of students and staff in order to serve business and industry.
Since then, the role of business and industry as actors within the University has grown alongside a wider trend of commercialisation in higher education. Warwick’s Chancellor, Sir Richard Lambert, was until recently the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, and the University supported the findings of the Lord Browne Review. Almost half a century after its publication, Warwick University Ltd.’s allegations were echoed last autumn,
as students attended marches and occupied lecture halls in an attempt to prevent cuts and tuition fee rises.
Despite some minor concessions, Thrift’s speech did little to dispel these notions and he criticised publications, such as the London Review of Books, for condemning the marketisation of British Universities.
Professor Maureen Freely, a novelist and journalist, praised the “common devotion amongst students and staff to the academic tradition”. She argued that, “The intrinsic value of the arts and sciences cannot exist in a commercial world un-aided”. Todd said more communication with the public, and in particular with 17 year olds, was necessary if the public university and its core value – knowledge for its own sake – were to live on.
Jehanzeb Khan, a second-year PPE student and the only student speaker, echoed Freely’s comments about the intrinsic value of knowledge and condemned the commoditisation of education as a complete negation of such concepts. He said that maintaining open access to University and resisting a culture in which exams are seen to be all that matters is imperative.
Finally, Professor Robin Wensley of Warwick Business School argued in favour of government funding and a graduate tax for higher education. Citing Higher Education Minister David Willets’, controversial and quickly retracted claim last week that prospective students could effectively buy University places, Wensley said a rethink about how market logic is applied to public goods in needed.
The speeches were followed by a lively debate, with the audiences questions mostly focussed on Thrift, who gave by far the longest speech. Students’ asked for reassurance that their voices would be heard, in light of what they perceived to be a persistent lack of engagement with University management. The debate ended with a particularly impassioned statement from a Professor of English Literature, who argued for confrontation against current trends in higher education, as oppose to diplomacy. He claimed that public funding of universities is possible given that GDP (gross domestic product) has increased alongside student numbers and that the taxpayers who would foot the bill would not be the poor but rather the very rich.
The government’s recent policies regarding spending cuts and tuition fee rises are seen as part of a wider trend towards privatisation in higher education and the demise of the public university.
While lively, the debate was carried out in a polite and constructive manner and the audience appeared to appreciate the Vice Chancellor attending and listening to their views. “It is good to see lecturers, students and management all engaging on such an important issue – I think it is a step in the right direction”, commented Jack Everson, a first-year Chemistry student.
Indeed, the IAS hope that there will now be “a series of ongoing internal debates about the future of the public university and about Warwick in this context”.