10 August 2017
Universities In The News
Economics and education.
By Lynda Goetz
Universities seem to have been in the news a good deal in the last week. However, none of the news seems exactly positive. First there were Baroness Deech’s comments urging vice-chancellors to stand up to student demands if free speech is to be safeguarded; then there were reports about the increasing numbers of international students in universities and finally an item about two female law students suing Oxford university over its ‘unhelpful’ attitude to their mental problems.
The first issue has been discussed in the Shaw Sheet on a number of occasions (Freedom of Speech, University Rankings and Free Speech, Students or Vice-Chancellors a Threat to Democracy? Sir Tim Hunt) the second and the third appear at first glance to be new developments. According to a Sunday Times investigation, increasingly commercialised universities are recruiting higher numbers of foreign students as they pay greater amounts in fees than UK students. Foreign students can pay up to £35,000 a year for subjects such as medicine, whilst British students’ fees are capped at £9,250. The detailed figures appear to show that, across all UK universities, the number of national students being offered places is down (at a time when overall applications have increased) whereas the number of places offered to foreign, non-EU nationals has been on the up since 2008. Dr Anthony Seldon, former Master of Wellington College and currently Vice-Chancellor of the independent Buckingham University, has said that if proven, discriminating against less lucrative British students would be ‘very wrong’. Of course, as Sir Anthony has carefully acknowledged in his wording, like most statistics, those compiled by Andrew Gilligan and his researchers can be subject to different interpretations, and a lively (if at times surprisingly illiterate) debate ensued on the website following the appearance of the article at the weekend. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 should perhaps throw further light on this subject when it comes into effect in April next year.
The third news item concerns two young women, a Miss Dance and a Miss Spector, both represented by Chris Fry, a leading equality and human rights lawyer. Mr Fry, wrongly stated in The Telegraph as being a managing partner at Unity Law, is nowadays in fact a partner in a new cooperative firm, Fry Law, set up in March of this year, which has taken over Unity Law’s cases after that firm went into administration on 2nd June this year. Mr Fry, representing the two women on a ‘no win, no fee basis’, considers that the surge of lawsuits against universities by students is driven by the changing attitudes of the young ‘more aware of their rights’ (clearly nothing to do with the increasing availability of lawyers taking ‘no win, no fee’ cases). He goes on to comment about the cases he has undertaken under legislation in the 2010 Equality Act, whereby the ‘reasonable adjustments’ required by the Act to accommodate mental illness were not made. Miss Dance is suing Jesus College, Oxford, for psychological harm and loss of earnings as she was forced to take a year’s break from her studies when staff at the college refused to allow special arrangements for her exams. Jesus College refutes allegations of discrimination and denies that the requirements for mock exams to be sat in a large hall and to be handwritten placed students with anxiety or depression at any major disadvantage to their peers.
Baroness Deech, the cross-bench peer, former lecturer in law and principal of St. Anne’s College (1998-2004) Oxford, in a letter to The Times which was then commented on in other newspapers, pointed out that vice-chancellors needed to stand up to students if they were not to be regarded as complicit in the limiting of free speech in our universities. She considers that by pandering to the students’ requirements for ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ in case they might find the content of lectures (e.g. on rape cases) distressing, vice-chancellors are contributing to the stranglehold on free speech which could have a negative effect on Britain’s economic and social success. The comments in her letter are in some ways a re-run of many points made in a letter signed by a number of academics back in December 2015 at the time of the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign (Baroness Deech was incidentally a trustee of the Rhodes Scholarships 1997-2006). That letter said, inter alia, that “ ‘self-censorship’ is turning universities into over-sanitised ‘safe-spaces’ ” and that this “threatens the very fabric of democracy”.
So what, if anything, do these items about universities have in common? The key word is possibly ‘economics’. Now that students are paying a much higher proportion of the costs of their education, ‘you want to ensure you are receiving a kind of service that allows you to maximise your outcome’, to use the words of Mr Fry. Does this mean they feel ‘entitled’? They consider they have the right to a university education; they want that education to be on their terms; they believe it should result in well-paid employment. More than ever, they are clients, customers or consumers and they expect a reasonable amount of contact time and decent teaching. At the same time, universities are required to balance the books and attain or maintain international status amongst the world’s academic institutes. Can these somewhat contradictory requirements somehow be met?
Of course it is understandable that universities may be increasing the number of foreign students if, functioning as independent competitive businesses, they have to offer high salaries to vice-chancellors (average salaries in the academic year 2015-16 were £277,834, according to the universities union report), copper-bottomed pensions to lecturers for whom they compete internationally and state‑of‑the‑art facilities. Of course, it is equally understandable that feathers may be ruffled if it is shown that this is at the expense of British students or that it really is easier for higher‑fee‑paying foreigners to access our universities than our own home‑grown applicants. Of course universities should make sure that all students, including those with disabilities of various sorts, have access to educational opportunities and those with disabilities have a right to expect not to be disadvantaged compared to their peers. However, is educational disadvantage the same as financial disadvantage, and to what extent is that the responsibility of the university? Of course universities should be ensuring that they are centres for debate and discussion, and those leading them should not be kow‑towing to ridiculous demands which rewrite history and silence controversy. Nevertheless, it has been the case pretty much throughout history that youth has derided age and attempted to overthrow the status quo. The difference now seems to be the degree to which the views of the consumers have become paramount (the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act has even, for better or worse, put student ‘satisfaction’ as a factor into the new university rankings system).
What has to be recognised is the essential incompatibility between the aspirations of universities and those of students, as outlined above. Universities and those who run them seek status and recognition; students seek exactly the same, but the needs of each to attain those ends are almost diametrically opposed. Who is to say that Miss Dance would have found paid employment immediately upon qualifying as a lawyer? There is a surfeit of lawyers at present, as far as I am aware, and I know of a number who have not been able to find traineeships or jobs. Upon what does she base her right to ‘loss of earnings’? The university might be considered to have met its obligations in full by allowing her extra time to complete her studies. Can they also be held responsible for her future employment or lack of it? Perhaps a little more acceptance of realities and a greater degree of tolerance and understanding from both sides might result in a much higher level of ‘satisfaction’ all round.
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