Universities Challenged

27 February 2018, Blog

Education Select Committee calls Vice-Chancellors to give evidence on value for money in higher education.

Accountability, transparency and social justice – these were the points of order on the Education Select Committee’s agenda last week, when it held the second session of its inquiry into value for money in higher education. Chaired by former Conservative Education Minister MP Robert Halfon, the committee called as witnesses a raft of high-profile Vice-Chancellors, some of whose salaries have been stoking public disillusion with the higher education system.

It’s fair to say that anyone who tuned into Channel 4’s Dispatches last night would also have enjoyed sitting in on this session. Bookended as it was by the Prime Minister’s announcement of a radical review of tuition fees and a major strike action by university lecturers and staff to contest cuts to their pensions, it was timely, to say the least. It also came two weeks ahead of the deadline for public consultation on a new remuneration code drafted by the University Committee of Chairs – a guide which, once finalised, will set a new national standard for universities’ governance and high-level pay.

Conservative MPs on the committee questioned witnesses with especial candour – given that Theresa May had already admitted that Coalition Government’s universal hike in tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 in 2012 was defunct, cross-examination of the very people who failed to give those reforms value for either students or the tax payer went unrestrained.

Halfon began with a soft touch, asking VCs whether universities could continue to measure themselves against the experience they provided rather than the employability of their graduates, in light of the UK’s much splashed skills gap. Responses to this were unremarkable, with mentions of ‘false dichotomy’, ‘balance’, and ‘ecosystem’ (in which different universities played to different strengths).

On the topic of universities’ ethnic and social diversity, Halfon questioned Oxford’s Louise Richardson in particular, quoting the university’s woeful level of BAME admissions. Richardson presented a poor defence, reasoning that universities could not fix the deep disparities already existent in society, and citing Oxford’s Summer School programme and multi-million pound Access to Learning Fund. This received short shrift from Halfon, for whom the widening wage disparity between wealthier and poorer students upon leaving Oxford spoke for itself.

Despite the Telegraph’s pick-up of Open University Vice-Chancellor Peter Horrock’s misjudged explanation for his salary, it was Richardson who spent most of the meeting in the committee’s cross hairs for lack of demonstrable good will. For example, where Nottingham Trent, Liverpool, Sheffield Hallam and the Open University had begun to accept applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds and schools with T-Level, B-Tech and lower but harder earned A-Level qualifications, Oxford would merely ‘explore the option’.

Richardson owned that hers was a risk-averse institution, and was unprepared to make socially-geared concessions in the admissions process, even if, as Michelle Donelan MP and Lucy Powell MP argued, Oxbridge interviews were setting deprived applicants up to fail, or failed to recognise the higher academic achievement of applicants who had achieved good but not outstanding grades ‘against the odds’.

The meat of the discussion, pay, yielded some interesting admissions: there was general consensus that higher education had mostly escaped austerity, unlike other sectors (including education), and that this exception was unfair. Not quite stretching to make a direct connection with Vice-Chancellor salary increases, or as Labour MP Ian Mearns put it, the Vice-Chancellors’ ‘racket’, panellists (with the exception of Louise Richardson) did say they welcomed the CUC’s remuneration code.

Even so, Prof Chris Husbands, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, managed to make an embarrassing faux pas. Playing devil’s advocate, he suggested universities’ contributions to their local economies might justify his salary being higher than the Prime Minister’s, though he personally would not be accepting a raise.

Richardson also incurred the ire of the committee when she suggested that, unlike the PM, her earnings did not come from the taxpayer’s pocket. This remark was disingenuous, said one Labour MP, given that students had to take out huge state loans, which were subject to rising inflation and which many graduates (some 40 %, it was estimated, since the introduction of tuition fees and student loans in 1998) were as yet unable to repay.

We can no longer operate as though we were in an isolated bubble, said one Vice-Chancellor.  This Select Committee left no one in any doubt – it’s time for universities to produce the goods, and face the music.

This blog post has been written by Connie Long, Senior Account Executive at JBP. 

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