Be­sieged and ag­grieved

Aca­demics see the OfS, like the changes in USS pen­sions, as an­other at­tack on them and the cher­ished com­pen­sa­tions of their pro­fes­sion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - John.gill@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

The Of­fice for Stu­dents comes into force on 1 April. This is also Easter Day and April Fool’s Day. You de­cide which is the most rel­e­vant.

To take the first of these, it would be a mis­take to think that this is a res­ur­rec­tion of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Fund­ing Coun­cil for Eng­land – the in­sis­tence that the OfS is a dif­fer­ent beast is not just pub­lic re­la­tions guff.

He­fce, as it said on the tin, was a fund­ing agency, not a reg­u­la­tor. It was also a gen­uinely arm’s-length body, act­ing as a buf­fer be­tween the gov­ern­ment and uni­ver­si­ties in a way that pre­served in­sti­tu­tional au­ton­omy. The OfS, which from the out­set has pro­voked dark mut­ter­ings that it is a barely dis­guised Of­fice for Gov­ern­ment, is a dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion. A reg­u­la­tor with a re­mit to be in­ter­ven­tion­ist, its tra­vails over the past six months have am­pli­fied the sense that it is far closer than its pre­de­ces­sor to be­ing an arm of the state.

The most high-pro­file il­lus­tra­tion was Toby Young’s bun­gled ap­point­ment to the OfS board by Jo John­son, then uni­ver­si­ties min­is­ter.

Although John­son’s di­rect in­volve­ment was con­firmed only af­ter an in­quiry, it had been widely sus­pected at the time, and last week an email emerged high­light­ing how wary univer­sity lead­ers were of get­ting in­volved as a re­sult.

Writ­ing to vice-chan­cel­lors at the time of the row, Uni­ver­si­ties UK boss Alis­tair Jarvis warned that it would not be “in the best in­ter­ests of the sec­tor for UUK to pub­licly chal­lenge this min­is­te­rial ap­point­ment”. So much for au­ton­omy.

To be fair to the OfS, there has been no at­tempt to pre­tend that it is any­thing other than a reg­u­la­tor that will take on a sec­tor that is seen as slip­pery and self-in­ter­ested. The gov­ern­ment is de­ter­mined to in­stil value for money and stu­dent sat­is­fac­tion as higher ed­u­ca­tion’s rul­ing prin­ci­ples, and the OfS is charged with mak­ing it hap­pen.

All this might seem en­tirely di­vorced from the on­go­ing dis­pute over the fu­ture of the Uni­ver­si­ties Su­per­an­nu­a­tion Scheme, which has caused tens of thou­sands of higher ed­u­ca­tion staff to go on strike over the past month. But per­haps it is part of a con­tin­uum.

The strike clearly is about pen­sions – a case of aca­demics pushed too far on an is­sue that they took a hit on a few years ago, on the un­der­stand­ing that the ax­e­men would not be back any time soon.

But, as oth­ers have ob­served, it is about more than just pen­sions. Academia has been un­der con­stant at­tack for the best part of a decade – and rarely for good rea­sons.

The USS and the OfS en­cap­su­late that sense of an em­bat­tled pro­fes­sion be­ing stripped of the very things that made it at­trac­tive in the first place.

Take the prac­ti­cal is­sue of pen­sions. No one could claim that aca­demic ca­reers are easy or struc­tured in a way that is straight­for­ward, but they have un­de­ni­ably come with good terms and con­di­tions. That was al­ways one of the great ben­e­fits, and while it might be a stretch to sug­gest that peo­ple chose to work as aca­demics for the pen­sion, it is hu­man na­ture to cling to such things.

Now con­sider a point of prin­ci­ple: academia has long been a pro­fes­sion in which in­di­vid­u­als were in con­trol of their work­ing lives. They were not mi­cro­man­aged, mea­sured and messed around. They were trusted to pur­sue teach­ing and re­search as in­de­pen­dent schol­ars, ex­perts in their own fields with in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion and aca­demic free­dom the twin foun­da­tions of ex­cel­lence. In Eng­land, at least, the ar­rival of the OfS is the lat­est sig­nal that this un­fet­tered free­dom is a thing of the past.

The point is that many of the unique at­trac­tions of academia have been ground down, and with it the trust that used to ex­ist be­tween rank-and-file aca­demics and their lead­ers.

There is a sense that the bond of trust is also break­ing down be­tween uni­ver­si­ties and so­ci­ety (although not, in­ter­est­ingly, be­tween aca­demics and stu­dents, who are far more aligned on is­sues such as the pen­sions row and mar­keti­sa­tion than die-hard re­form­ers might care to ad­mit).

Writ­ing for us this week, Ge­orge Let­sas, pro­fes­sor of the phi­los­o­phy of law at UCL, de­scribes the USS row as a “strike to save higher ed­u­ca­tion”. You may or may not agree, but it is not an April Fool – these are cru­cial mo­ments in de­ter­min­ing the fu­ture of higher ed­u­ca­tion in the UK.

Many of the unique at­trac­tions of academia have been ground down, and with it the trust that used to ex­ist be­tween rank-and-file aca­demics and their lead­ers

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