Posted tagged ‘Universities UK’

Separating values?

December 17, 2013

There are times when, I suspect, we all regret initiating some discussion or other which goes off in an unexpected direction and causes us grief. This, I imagine, is how Universities UK (of which all British universities are members) feel about the advice they recently offered on gender segregation at meetings on university premises. This was contained in a larger document which was about handling external speakers. The document contained a case study, based on a hypothetical event at which the speakers are debating different approaches to religion, where one of the speakers has ‘made clear that he wishes for the event to be segregated according to gender’. The Universities UK document then set out the legal and practical issues, focusing both on freedom of speech and religious rights, and concluded:

‘It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account of [statutory duties], as well as equality duties and Human Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances, concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.’

While it might be suggested that this conclusion was somewhat opaque, it appeared to offer the advice that, in such circumstances, providing for gender-segregated audiences might be within the law, or indeed might be required by law.

Most documents issued by university umbrella bodies do not attract much public attention, but this one was an exception. A firestorm broke out, with newspapers and other media severely criticising Universities UK, and with student protests outside their offices. There were also reports alleging that segregated meetings has taken place on university campuses. The British Prime Minister also weighed in and, according to a news agency report, indicated that arranging gender-segregated audiences was not acceptable in the UK. A similar view was expressed by the Labour Party’s Shadow Business Secretary.

In the face of this onslaught, Universities UK decided to withdraw its advice pending a review of the issue with the help of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and senior lawyers.

So what are we to make of all this? More particularly, how should universities handle the complexities of multi-cultural concerns? Gender equality is one of the most basic requirements of a modern liberal society; so can this be legitimately qualified if a particular religious group rejects it and insists on its right to treat men and women differently? Would we accept it if this religious group were a Christian church?

Not everyone has backed the criticism of the Universities UK document. Writing on the website Huffington Post, the journalist Alastair Sloan suggested:

‘It is not acceptable to demand that a group of consenting adults cannot organise themselves by gender, if they see fit. It is of no business to feminists to be threatening to break up Islamic meetings – unless they are happy to be labelled religious persecutors.’

It is of course clear that universities must be open to and welcome and support people from many different cultures and countries. So for example, universities need to get better at recognising that a bars-and-alcohol leisure culture will seem hostile to many coming here from overseas, and that alternatives should be available. But equally it seems right that universities should protect liberal values of equal rights and opportunities, and that compromises around these values are wrong. The idea of ‘separate but equal’, which in theory underpinned apartheid (in practice there was little equality), has been wholly rejected, and should not be allowed to make a come-back in the context of gender. In many ways, it is reassuring that this was the strong near-consensus reaction to the Universities UK document.

I have a lot of sympathy for Universities UK in all this, as their intention was simply to offer dispassionate legal advice; but sometimes the strict legal position is not helpful. This was one of those times.

Not quite the apocalypse?

March 23, 2011

Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper carried an interesting article by Universities UK president, Professor Steve Smith. In this he argued that the new post-Browne funding model for English universities would not actually involve a public funding reduction, and that it was untrue that the government would cease to fund the humanities and social sciences. In both cases his point was that while the funding model would change, public money would continue to flow, but just through different channels (mainly through students in receipt of loans and grants).

Leaving aside the slightly irritating tendency for Universities UK to present issues these days as if there were no UK higher education outside of England there are some interesting points in Steve Smith’s analysis – though he will also play into the hands of some critics with his strong references to the introduction of ‘market incentives into the system’. But in every part of the UK the question remains of how an increasingly obvious inability of the taxpayer to meet the cost of higher education can be overcome, and whether the method chosen for England is viable.

Freeing the universities? Or killing them?

October 14, 2010

It seems likely that the discussion about the real effect of the Browne proposals for higher education in England (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) will go on for a while, and will probably get another shot in the arm when the UK government reveals its spending plans shortly. The latter is important because the impact of the recommendations, if implemented, will depend to a large extent on what level of public funding may still be available. At the moment speculation ranges from the idea that current levels of investment will continue and fees will be additional income for institutions, to the more or less complete withdrawal of public subsidy. Browne himself assumes that a fee income of £7,000 per student will represent the status quo, which would suggest a fairly dramatic reduction of public funding.

Reactions to the proposals have, as would be expected, varied depending on who is speaking. The Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has welcomed the report, saying that the recommendations will ‘help to support a sustainable, high-quality university system open to students from all backgrounds’. On the other hand the University and College Union has stated that they are the ‘final nail in the coffin for affordable higher education’. The response of Universities UK is measured, and on the whole positive. The journal Times Higher Education has today published an editorial in which it suggests a somewhat apocalyptic vision:

‘UK higher education is in for a tumultuous and brutal time that could include mergers, aggressive takeovers, private-sector competition, university break-ups and failing institutions. And with sweeping cuts ahead, the sector may find it has no alternative but to accept these huge structural – and philosophical – changes.’

What the reality will be may be too early to say. But it is also clear that while the report addresses England only, other parts of these islands, including Scotland and Ireland, will be fundamentally affected. In Ireland it must be likely that the Browne report will influence thinking on higher education funding in the context of the Hunt report (always assuming that this ever sees the light of day). In Scotland the question must be how public funding of higher education can be sustained at manageable levels in the absence of fees and in the light of dramatic cuts in England. In that context it is remarkable that Sir Andrew Cubie, who ten years ago presided over a report that led to the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland, is now arguing that Scottish graduates ‘should make a contribution’.

One way or another, there are interesting times ahead.

Are we seeing the end of higher education expansion?

August 12, 2010

One of the constant themes of higher education in most countries over recent decades has been its continuing expansion. After World War 2 a degree was still the expectation or aspiration of only a very small proportion of the population in western societies, usually those coming from a privileged background. Then, as one of the later consequences of the welfare state, came the so-called ‘massification’ of the sector, with higher education opening up to people and groups who had previously largely been excluded. Over recent years many governments have suggested further targets for expansion – in Ireland it became government policy to target a participation rate of 72 per cent of any given age cohort.

But this expected further expansion is not now happening in some countries, on the face of it largely for funding reasons: governments simply cannot afford to pay for it. Ironically right now it would, if the money were there, be relatively easy to let the system expand, as an increasing number of young people, unsure about their career prospects in the aftermath of the recession, are anxious to go to university. So governments face the dilemma of either pushing ahead with a further upskilling of the labour force, or facing the funding reality and cutting back. Only few will attempt the feat the Irish government has in mind, of increasing participation aggressively while paying less to the universities for providing the education.

The issue has just been highlighted in Britain, with both Universities UK and individual institutions indicating that this year they will not be offering the same number of places through ‘clearing‘ (the system used to match vacancies with aspiring students after universities have allocated places to the initial successful applicants), or even any places at all.

In Ireland the universities are having to examine very carefully whether they really can increase their intake any further in the light of continuing funding (and staffing) reductions, and with the real fear that these reductions are already seriously compromising quality.

Outside of the specific funding considerations, it should be noted that we have not really addressed in any coherent way what level of participation in higher education is workable or desirable. It is clear beyond doubt that there is further scope for increasing substantially the intake from disadvantaged groups in society, but whether an overall increase is desirable or sustainable, and what impact this would have on the overall mix of qualifications and career patterns, has not really been properly discussed, and it needs to be. Right now, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that the expansion of higher education will, or can, continue.

Higher education: predicting the apocalypse

January 16, 2010

In many developed countries, though not all, higher education is currently experiencing significant cuts in public spending. In Ireland we have seen major reductions in funding over the past two years, and more is expected. Universities have been warning, though on the whole in a restrained fashion, that these cuts may seriously compromise our international standing.

No such restraint in the warnings has been exercised by our United Kingdom colleagues. I have previously drawn attention to the recent announcement of budget cuts in the UK, and have indicated that these are part of a pattern that should make us look again at what kind of university model may be viable in the future. The British universities themselves have put it all rather more dramatically: Steve Smith, the President of Universities UK, predicted that universities would have to ‘slash the number of courses, students and staff’; while the Russell Group (representing what they describe as the UK’s 20 leading universities) warned that as many as 30 universities ‘may not survive’.

There is little doubt that we are facing a key moment in higher education, in which the pressures on public finances are producing serious collateral damage on universities. However, publicly predicting ‘meltdown’ (as the Russell Group has done) and the likely closure of about a quarter of the sector is perhaps not the best strategy for dealing with this. Such warnings will have an effect only if they strike a chord with the public and thereby lead to pressure on the politicians. All the evidence suggests that this is not what happens at all, and predictions of doom and collapse may actually irritate some stakeholders, not least because most will assume that the closure of 30 universities is not a likely prospect.

So apart from the need to assess how institutions can live, develop and eventually prosper in a very different funding environment, we may also need to consider carefully how we carry our messages to the general public. Clearly we do need to be open about the difficulties we face, and we need to find supporters and allies. But we should avoid predicting the apocalypse, not least because our predictions could themselves undermine our confidence and our ability to address our problems.

Going global – the big new world of higher education?

December 9, 2009

According to a report that has just been published in the UK, we can expect that globalisation will have a much more visible impact on universities in the near future. Until now, the international dimension of higher education in this part of the world has mainly been experienced through overseas student recruitment, the development of some sort of tangible presence by universities of one in country in another country (mainly through smaller branch campuses or marketing offices), and the establishment of multi-country research teams. These phenomena, while more in evidence now than they used to be, have not however fundamentally altered the shape of higher education.

Now, according to a report commissioned by Universities UK and prepared by the law firm Eversheds, all that may be about to change dramatically. The document, entitled Developing future university structures: new funding and legal models, predicts a number of new developments, including a wave of mergers and clusterings between institutions (including some non-HE institutions), more private sector involvement, the establishment of branches of US universities this side of the Atlantic, the private take-over of some publicly funded institutions, multi-jurisdiction universities, and (intriguingly) the possible alignment of some higher education and health service organisations.

Of course it is impossible to predict any of this with accuracy, and to me at least some of the predictions seem a tad fanciful, but it is clear nonetheless that the structures of higher education and of the sector’s institutions will change over the next decade or so. In this particular world it will be important for individual institutions to be clear as to the alliance or cluster in which they will find their strategic partners. Some may exist outside of all this, and some of the large traditional institutions may not feel the need to change at all. But some of the new configurations may become very powerful, and may be more visibly involved in the translation of the knowledge generated or disseminated within the institution to its use in the community or in business.

Of course Irish higher education is currently being subjected to a more general strategic review. In this the emphasis has to date been on the reconfiguration of the sector within its domestic context. It may be time to factor in global opportunities and threats.