by Gordon Finlayson and Danny Hayward.
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In the last thirty years the university system in the UK has changed radically, and since 2003 it has also changed rapidly. Four different rationales have been put forward by successive administrations or their appointed advisors for these reforms:
3. Economic accountability – i.e. value for money
4. Political accountability – i.e. democratisation or widening participation.
At the same time all the reforms have been accompanied by the now implicit, now explicit aim of undoing the old collegiate organisational structures of universities and replacing them with corporate structures. This now endemic structural transformation of universities has been by far the most important effect of the reforms. It would be wrong to think that universities have survived more or less unchanged in their nature and function, while merely having been made larger, more efficient, more accountable, more open to a broad social constituency and less remote from social needs.
In the following we will present critical history of UK Higher Education reform. We show that universities are fast losing their status as self-governing educational institutions and their relative independence from the economic and political systems. The academic values that used to govern their activities of researching, teaching and learning have gradually been sacrificed to the instrumental values of economic usefulness and financial rentability. Where universities were once part of the ecology of civil society (as opposed to the state and the economy) they have now been politically repositioned as engines of economic growth. In place of education, they are now supposed to offer training for work. In place of research and free inquiry, they are supposed to produce the intellectual property and human capital required to drive the knowledge economy.
The official line is that expansion and corporatisation belong together. In the last 25 years Government officials and the various experts appointed to conduct reviews of the Higher Education sector (usually from outside academia) have argued consistently that its expansion calls for a new mode of governance, and recommended that the traditional collegial models of organisation should be abolished and replaced with corporate organisational structures. However, it is wrong to think that the aims of expansion, efficiency and accountability required the corporate restructuring of Universities, for it is by no means clear such restructuring conduces to any of these ends. What is clear, however, is that corporate universities are much more responsive and also more vulnerable to the demands of the national and global economy, that they can be more easily ‘managed’ from the centre, and that they are far more amenable to direct and indirect Government control.
The narrative we offer is of necessity abbreviated, stylised and simplified. It is not supposed to be a detailed and comprehensive account. Still we believe that the broad contours of our interpretation are correct, and consistent with the historical facts of Government policies and their implementation in the period. The aim of the narrative is to pick out the overall pattern in successive Higher Education and University reforms, and to provide sufficient context for those affected to make sense of the changes which are currently being ushered in at breakneck pace throughout the university sector. These changes have not come out of nowhere. Nor are they just the unplanned, quasi-natural consequences of broader social and historical changes: they are the effects of specific policies aimed at repositioning the UK in respect to the global economy, and of the various audits put in place to monitor their performance.
It is also our intention to paint in a background against which the continuities and differences between Conservative and Labour policies can be understood and assessed. Crudely, put, Conservative reforms under Thatcher and Major paved the way for Blair and Brown’s unashamedly neo-liberal policies. Where the former had been devised and pursued for the sake of getting value for money and making universities more efficient, the latter served the primary aim of increasing the economic return from university research and teaching. Conservative policy was about reducing the economic input, whilst Labour sought to increase the economic output. Under New Labour corporate restructuring was accelerated with a vengeance, due to a sea change in the conception of the UK’s economic competitiveness. Henceforth universities were to become the primary drivers of a new economy. By far the most impressive consequence of three decades of university reform is that UK universities are now regarded by government, by funding councils, and, obligingly, by their own Vice-Chancellors and senior management groups primarily as agencies that offer skills-training for employees and research-and-development options for UK businesses (who have themselves been notoriously lax in both these areas).
In our view these reforms will have a baneful influence on the epistemic values of the pursuit of truth and knowledge for their own sake and on free intellectual inquiry. These bad consequences will make themselves particularly severely felt in the humanities.
Moreover, these reforms may not improve the performance of Universities measured even in the narrowly economic terms which frame Government policy. More worryingly still, these policies have been undertaken without due consideration to the wider meaning and value of the universities and university education for culture, society, democracy, social well-being and quality of life. No-one knows in advance what effects this government led colonisation and marketisation of Higher Education Institutions will have on the social, political and cultural life of Britain, but generally speaking the colonisation of formerly non-marketised domains of social life, and the erosion of civil society institutions that embed the political and economic systems, has a pathological effect on democratic society. It would be naive to expect these to be an exception.