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Academics at Sussex defend higher education

Students and staff marching against cuts Photo: indimedia.org

Hundreds of academics have signed a new white paper, ‘In Defence of Public Higher Education’, published 27 September this year, as an alternative to the Government’s planned higher education spending cuts.

The paper was written by a group of academics led by John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham and founder of the ‘Campaign for the Public University’. The group included Dr. William McEvoy, Lecturer in Drama and English at the University of Sussex.

The document follows a ‘Petition of No Confidence’, established by the University and College Union (UCU) in July, which has so far been signed by 16,229 people nationwide. Its signatories include academics, undergraduate and postgraduate students, NUS officers and university alumni.

A further petition, on website www.noconfidence.org.uk, has gained 3727 signatures.

This petition states that the signatories “have no confidence in the Higher Education policies of this Government”, and that they believe that “the consumer-producer relationship which the Government policies are designed to set up will undermine the spirit of academic community which is at the heart of the ethos of Higher Education.”

In addition, those who have signed the petition believe that cuts to the Higher Education budget are not economically viable.

The petition’s website states that “the 80 percent cut to the HEFCE Teaching grant will leave universities systematically underfunded even with higher fees.”

It goes on to declare that “the academic profession in the UK has never been less attractive.
“The debts incurred to go through both undergraduate and postgraduate study could be as high as £87,000.”

With a combined total of almost 20,000 signatures, and numerous supportive Facebook campaigns, the opposition towards the Government’s Higher Education reforms has grown considerably in recent months.

One such online campaign is the Facebook group ‘Sussex Uni Defends H.E’, set up by Sussex lecturer Dr. William McEvoy, who helped draft the new white paper, and who states that his online group is “for academic, academic-related and administrative colleagues at the University of Sussex. Its aim is to coordinate resistance to the privatisation of Higher Education in the UK.”

Dr. McEvoy has used the social media site to publicise the group. It currently has 235 members, including students and alumni of Sussex University, as well as his colleagues and other supporters of the movement.

The group regularly posts articles and information relevant to the campaign, so that material from various portals can be conveniently accessed in one place.

Such Facebook campaigns, and the widespread support of petitions against the original Government White Paper, ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, have helped raise awareness of the movement.

The alternative white paper was created by groups such as Holmwood’s ‘Campaign for the Public University’ and by individual faculty from various Universities.

Simon Szreter, professor of History and Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, who helped to draw up the document, said: “it is a counter to the breathtaking speed of the government programme and its reliance on an atrociously flimsy document, the Browne Review,” a reference to the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding, chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley in 2010.

In reaction to the new document, Ed Miliband has said that Labour would cap tuition fees at £6,000 instead of £9,000.
This was confirmed by a Labour source who told the Guardian’s Nicholas Watt: “We would like to go further, but we can only do what is affordable.”

However, the notion of what is and isn’t “affordable” is not the focus of the alternative white paper. ‘In Defence of Public Higher Education’ focuses “not on fees and caps, but on the ‘public good’ of higher education, what it gives to society as well as to individual students”, according to Alice Woolley, editor of Education Guardian.

In its executive summary, the document argues that “the Coalition government has a vision of the market and how it operates to benefit consumers, but it has no separate vision of higher education and its benefits both to students and wider society. It is now applying its vision of the market to higher education.”

It goes on to draw attention to the fact that the 2011 white paper and the 2010 Browne Report “are the only major policy documents in the last fifty years to make no mention of the public value of higher education.”

This indicates a significant change in the Government’s view of education in terms of societal value, with primary focus being the financial benefits and detriments of funding education for those over sixteen.

This change has been recognised by academics and other professionals in the field of education, and is questioned in the new white paper, which ends with almost 400 signatures.

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