What is the Council for the Defence of British Universities?

Concerned about the marketisation of higher education? So is the Council for the Defence of British Universities. Anne Sheppard, executive committee chair, gives University Business the lowdown

How would you characterise your members?

Early in 2012, Professor Sir Keith Thomas, CDBU’s founder, recruited 66 founding members, all distinguished academic or public service – among them Alan Bennett, Baroness Mary Warnock, Sir David Attenborough, Professor Margaret MacMillan, Professor Sir Roger Penrose and Sir Michael Atiyah – and all concerned to re-assert the independence of universities in the face of increasing government interference and the rise of managerial metrics in university administration. 

Membership was then solicited from all who supported CDBU’s aims and rose quickly to the present total of over 700 members, most of whom are working academics. Institutional autonomy and academic governance continue to be major concerns for CDBU and its members. In 2020, Sir Keith Thomas stepped down as our chair of trustees and was succeeded by Rowan Williams (Baron Williams of Oystermouth).

How has CDBU evolved since its inception in 2012?

In May 2016, the Higher Education and Research Bill was presented to parliament, making wide-ranging provision for government intervention in the sector through the establishment of the Office for Students.   CDBU was active alongside the Campaign for the Public University in sponsoring the publication of the Alternative White Paper: In Defence of Public Higher Education: Knowledge for a Successful Society. There followed an active campaign to recruit members of both houses of parliament to our cause.

While we had support from members of the Labour Party in the Commons, no amendments were secured there; we had more success in the Lords and, although much of that was swept away in the wash-up at the dissolution of parliament that took place in April 2017, the Higher Education and Research Act did contain important provision for the independent review of the TEF. This has since been conducted under Dame Shirley Pearce and is leading to some welcome change, notably the abandonment of subject-level ratings. Since then, public awareness of the effects of marketisation on both students and academic staff has continued to grow, thanks in part to CDBU’s work.

Universities are being forced to act like businesses: academics are now seen as ‘producers’, and students are viewed as ‘consumers’

Please outline the main arguments behind your current campaigns. 

The essence of CDBU’s mission is to challenge the marketisation of higher education. The dogma that market competition alone can improve universities has damaged the university’s core function, which is not only to gather and extend knowledge but also to promote understanding and critical thinking, as a public good, without hindrance from either management or politicians.

Universities are being forced to act like businesses: academics are now seen as ‘producers’, expected to focus their research on what is commercially valuable, and students are viewed as ‘consumers’ whose academic choices are to be guided by criteria of supposed employability and earning prospects post-graduation. Marketisation has manifested itself in many ways, perhaps most damagingly in the prevalence of short-term and casual contracts, which has given overworked, underpaid and undervalued junior staff zero security, with no promise of continuity in their employment.

Marketisation also presents itself within ‘Excellence Frameworks’ such as the TEF, the REF and the KEF, creating an obsession with metrics and rankings. Universities now prioritise the most profitable research outputs over what their staff consider to be intrinsically valuable. All of CDBU’s campaigns are entwined with the crisis of marketisation and the desire to rid universities of its pernicious effects.

What are your views on the DfE’s proposed “free speech champion”? How should vice-chancellors respond?

Academic freedom is concerned with freedom of inquiry and so operates in a sphere separate from that of politics and government. For this reason, the authority for determining what academic freedom is, and what regulations should protect it, cannot sit with the government or any other non-academic body.

While government may require that universities should have ordinances and statutes protecting free speech – because academic freedom is concerned with the how and why of expression and conduct – it must be academics acting collegially who define the framework within which academic freedom operates. In this way, academic freedom is self-monitoring and regulated according to the very debate that academic freedom itself requires. The freedom of inquiry may also require the freedom to express ‘off-brand’ opinions without fear of retaliation.

Successive reforms to higher education have introduced managerial practices into what are, at heart, collegial institutions. Collegial relations connect academics across institutions and globally, undercutting the competition mentality introduced by marketisation. CDBU therefore believes that V-Cs should, both individually and collectively, repudiate the DfE’s proposal to appoint a “free speech champion”.

V-Cs should, both individually and collectively, repudiate the DfE’s proposal to appoint a ‘free speech champion’

What do you think is the biggest threat to the HE sector in 2021? 

Undoubtedly the biggest threat to the higher education sector in 2021 is precarious employment and the exploitation of university staff and students.

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the sector in many ways, notably financially, but it has also brought to the fore many of the issues that CDBU has been campaigning against for years. There have been mass redundancies across the sector, facilitated by the use of short-term employment contracts, and we have seen the struggles, demands and needs of students ignored by both universities and government. University funding needs to be thoroughly reviewed as does governance in individual institutions, if we are to even begin tackling the inequalities and harm the pandemic has wrought on an already precarious sector.

How would you describe the morale, or mood, among academics right now?

Even before the pandemic took hold, academics were extremely vocal about their dissatisfaction and anger at how they are treated under the marketised system. The pandemic has simply amplified these feelings and concerns. Academics are over-worked, undervalued, and threatened by an increasingly competitive and ruthless job market. CDBU believes that academics have been largely ignored throughout the pandemic, despite the vital role that they play in society. Morale is low: everyone is exhausted.

The government seeks to diminish types of education that nurture curiosity, independent thinking and critical evaluation

How best should universities fight back against the often negative press they’ve received in the mainstream media during the pandemic? 

If universities are receiving bad press because of their actions during the pandemic, they should probably take a moment to consider why they are being met with such criticism. Unfortunately, we have witnessed some universities prioritising their financial wellbeing and security over the wellbeing of their staff and students. CDBU would urge university managers to listen to their staff and students and take meaningful action to meet their concerns.

What, in your view, are the best metrics with which to measure a degree’s ‘value’? 

The ‘value’ of a degree is not reducible to its social uses or its earning power.

The government has sought a higher education market in which student consumers, acting on the basis of key information regulated by the OfS, would be at the heart of the system. The government would provide support for student loans (with repayment contingent on future income) and universities would compete for students. The level of fees was to be capped and vary between £6-9k. As expected, the level of fees charged has clustered around the upper figure.

Estimates of the proportion of loans to be repaid have also been recalculated in such a way that the cost of the new system is beginning to affect government finances. The government proposes to intervene to reduce fees for subjects where it can estimate that a higher proportion of graduates will not pay off the loan before it is cancelled. This proposal merely shows the incoherence of government policy. By ‘valuing’ some degree subjects over others, the government seeks to diminish types of education that nurture curiosity, independent thinking and critical evaluation, appealing to metrics which fail to capture the true value of higher education. 

Who’s been the best universities minister so far this millennium? 

It’s already 2021 and there have been a lot of universities ministers in this millennium so far! In recent years, the universities minister who showed the best understanding of universities, in my view, was Chris Skidmore. 


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