Vice-chancellors must defend ‘diversity of perspective’, says OfS chair

The outgoing chair of the Office for Students said vice-chancellors had a responsibility to foster diverse opinions and expression on campus

Freedom of speech on university campuses is as important as diversity and inclusion, the outgoing chair of the Office for Students has said.

All types of diversity are a fundamental part of an inclusive higher education environment, Sir Michael Barber argued.

Speaking in a personal capacity at King’s College London last night (20 January), Sir Michael warned against university “groupthink”, urging vice-chancellors to protect “diversity of perspective” as much as diversity in relation to social background, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, and disability.

Universities should foster a “pluralistic and dynamic intellectual culture” and “guard against conscious or unconscious groupthink when it comes to academic appointments”. Sir Michael said universities are inclined to preference “cultural fit” over “research or teaching ability”.

He urged sector bigwigs to “avoid the pitfalls of rigid intellectual orthodoxy, groupthink and ‘won’t fit in here’ mindsets”.

“If universities come to be seen as intellectually intolerant hothouses for mono-perspectives, they will not thrive, nor represent society. Moreover, universities certainly do not have a monopoly on good ideas, reasoned thinking, and high-quality teaching.”

Sir Michael was brought into Downing Street last week to oversee Whitehall reforms. He is also a veteran of the Blair administration, during which he was responsible for the PM’s delivery unit. He will leave the OfS in March. Conservative peer James Wharton has been appointed, pending a hearing with the education select committee, as his replacement.

Despite Sir Michael’s calls for ‘diversity of thought’ in academia, figures show the sector has made little progress towards racial diversity.

According to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority (Hesa), the highest echelons of the higher education sector remain racially homogenous. Of the 22,810 professors employed at UK universities, just 155 are black.

50% participation in higher education

The outgoing OfS chair reflected that Blair’s target to see 50% of young people in England to enter higher education, set in 1999, was “no longer needed”. Education secretary Gavin Williamson last year binned the target, which was achieved in 2019.

Sir Michael, however, disagreed that higher education participation should peak.

“While there is no need for a further target, we should be wary of a limit,” he continued. “The changing nature of the labour market combined with the continuing improvement of our school system, make it highly likely that more school leavers will aspire to higher education in future than have in the past.”

“Those who argue that 50 per cent of the cohort going to university is too large a percentage not only ignore what is going on around the globe; they also, whether they intend it or not, stand in the way of social mobility.

“In South Korea, 70% of 25- to 34-year-olds hold a tertiary education qualification. In England, 58% of 18–30-year-olds from the highest participation neighbourhoods attend university; whereas just 28% from the lowest participation areas do so.

“In other words, the argument for a cap on numbers is simply that ‘While, of course, my children will attend university, other people’s children don’t need to’.”

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