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When it is a business perhaps?The recent episodes of Queen’s: A University Challenged on BBC were illuminating.They shed some light onto the vast extent of an operation that is typical of a modern university.But shocking to many was the incessant stressing of Queen’s as a “business”. That the programme makers dwelled on this reflects an emphasis deliberately concocted by the management. This uncovering of Queen’s as a “business” reveals an inherent dilemma and tension affecting many universities. The programme’s episodes serve us well by opening up the debate about what a university is, what it is for and its mission in our advanced society.For if indeed it is a “business” it is a strange one.Strange for a business to be regulated by Royal Charter and Statutes whereby employees are protected by academic freedom defined by UNESCO in Paris in 1997. As a “business” it is strange that Queen’s is also registered as a charity (Northern Ireland Charity Commission number 101788). This status was renewed as recently as 3rd July 2015 for the “advancement of education” for the benefit of “the general public”.This is no idle promise and the objects of the University, as set out in its Charter and Statutes, are “the advancement and dissemination of learning and knowledge by teaching and research, and through the practice and inculcation of professional and other skills appropriate to the provision of higher education, and by the example and influence of its corporate life”.Indeed since being founded in 1845 Queen’s has a proud history of providing education to all walks of life. The two Northern Ireland universities have the best record in the UK in accepting and supporting students from lower-income families. This may not seem to be a strategy that is good business “moving forward”.
So what is to be done? It seems that the management has focused its view narrowly on a business model. “If it is not run like a business it will soon be out of business” is an easy to throw away phrase that is laced with profound implications. The students begin to believe that they are customers and demand value for money. They compare their burden to that of a generation before them who paid no fees. They wield the power of this very radical and recent development. The trust students have in academics setting the standards tips too much toward the student setting the standards. The partnership with academics starts to break down. Meanwhile, with little or no contact with students, the management keeps an eye on the bottom line.
The academics stuck in the middle need to acquire urgently a clear vision as their education was no doubt free of fees and in a different environment.
But what type of business has customers that are also the product? It is not a fixed product but one that is educated and encouraged to innovate, change and evolve in a developing society that they themselves will construct in time. One where they will also become the future investors in the “business of education” as their parents did before.
Add to this a mix of increasing fees, government cuts and the general fog of uncertainty and this may lead us to neglect the very purpose of a university. In the end, only the academics can steer the university through this period of change and it will take strong leadership that is fuelled by clear and unambiguous philosophical argument.The fundamental questions about the nature of a university must be resolved in order to set a steady course.These cannot be defined so quickly or easily by describing it simply as a “business” but by a partnership and consensus around the role of teaching and research in an educational institution that is not entirely driven by student “customer” demands.That is far too simplistic a view that is lacking in thought. So simplistic that it risks choking the vital partnership between students and academics that must be encouraged to thrive.
The idea of a university is nothing new and those advocating radical change might note this. Plato noted in 380 BC in a powerful defence of philosophical education that has stood the test of time:“Thus, through a rigorous philosophical education, the city unshackles individuals and leads them out of the cave of ignorance and into the light of knowledge so that they are eventually able to go back into the cave and teach others”.
Cardinal John Henry Newman
A more recognizable definition of the modern university comes from John Henry (Cardinal) Newman. In “The Idea of a University” in 1854 it became ...”the high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery of experiment and speculation...” . This is an important text for the modern era as it simply defines what we currently are. Newman defined “liberal education” as ideas about people, knowledge and intellectual communities that were not factories and treadmills. What might he have made of the modern University College Dublin which he founded around the same time that Queen’s University Belfast was set up? He could not have envisaged universities befuddled by constant paranoia and reacting to the whims of government cuts or the age of mass education.
In heralding the expansion of higher education in the UK, the Robbins report of 1963 further set the tone with: “Courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”. It did not include “and as customers have at least £9000 per year available for fees and can feed and house themselves for at least three years”. That is a more recent business innovation.
If a university aspires to be a business then it must have its roots in an educational and teaching mission equally available to all who can benefit from it. It might be too much to ask the politicians and management to consider Plato and Newman and the ideas therein. But complaining that many of our politicians are not university educated and cannot understand is hopelessly unhelpful and naïve. They put themselves forward to be elected in a democracy and have a mandate from the people. That is all that counts. Nevertheless, through indifference, we might all begin to see a university through the window of a business plan and ignore the debate on education as our central mission at our peril. At a time of cuts and target setting in an intellectually sterile bureaucracy, nothing could be more urgent.
Professor Mike Larkin is Professor of Microbial Biochemistry in the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast. He has retired from teaching at Queen’s after 35 years.
UPDATE 8th August 2020 Things are moving fast today with severe criticism mounting about Ofqual and SQA, and urgent action is needed. TEFS has laid out ten points that should be considered to reverse out of the crumbling mess. Fairness should replace 'maintaining standards' as the primary objective. The government must cease trying to defend a system that acts as a barrier to the less advantaged.
Since posting yesterday, things have been moving fast. Today the Guardian put the examinations issue in large print on its front page with ‘Nearly 40% of A-level result predictions to be downgraded in England’. This conclusion came about after some great detective work by former medical statistician, Huy Duong, who analysed the data available and reconciled this with the Ofqual announcement that there could have been a 12% inflation in higher grades. It seems that Ofqual have been caught red handed and "Duong’s findings were privately confirmed to the Guardian by exam officials”…
The measures taken today by the UK government mean that many small businesses will be forced to close and lay off their workers. With people voluntarily staying away from bars, restaurants and clubs, the impact will be profound. The government will be judged by how it supports people most affected and this will be their legacy. Since the majority employ students as part-time workers, it seems they will be hit especially hard. Add to this the loss of part-time work within universities rapidly shutting down many operations, and the effect will be catastrophic for those in most need. Even PhD students robbed of their pay from casual teaching that they rely upon will be affected. TEFS now calls upon universities and government to step in to help those affected. Emergency hardship funds should be urgently deployed. Having to drop out or fail courses because of lack of support is not an option. Loss of funding and rent arrears will be the ‘straws that break the camel’s back’. The measure of…
UPDATE: Augar Speaks out Today, Friday 8th May 2020, Philip Augar broke cover and commented on the financial crisis in our universities in the Financial Times. With 'The time is ripe to reform UK university finance' he acknowledged that "Covid-19-related disruption may now mean that such a fee cut would be too destabilising". He is looking to a new post-COVID-19 world and he must be listened to. The likelihood of the government's response to his report last year diverging far from its recommendations looms. Augar has offered alternative options for funding Universities in his article for the Financial Times today (8th May 2020). His input is welcome at this time and the government should be bringing him into the fold again. TEFS has argued for a comprehensive review of university finances that goes well beyond simply looking at students and fees with: "Therefore, a working group involving students (such as NUS), staff (such as UCU) university managements (such…