The University of Sussex’s Vice-Chancellor, Michael Farthing, has been appointed the new chairman of the 1994 Group.
The group is a collective of leading research universities which promotes high standards of excellence with regard to the student experience and teaching practices.
Their website includes the following manifesto: “Established in 1994, the Group brings together nineteen internationally renowned, researchintensive universities.
“The Group provides a central vehicle to help members promote their common interests in higher education, respond efficiently to key policy issues, and share best methods and practice.”
In his first speech as chairman of the group, Farthing expressed his disappointment in the Higher Education White Paper, ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, published in June this year.
Farthing took particular issue with the lack of attention paid so postgraduate students, saying: “one of the biggest disappointments of the higher education White Paper was the near complete lack of attention it gave to research.”
Focussing on the debts which students will face in the coming academic year, Farthing commented on the lack of concern for postgraduate students, who lack financial support.
He said: “cuts in the teaching grant will impact on postgraduates just as much as undergraduates.
“But there is as yet no access to subsidised student loans for them.”
Postgraduate students rely on paid work, bank loans, and support from relatives and friends to finance both their tuition fees and their living costs.
While bursaries are provided from universities and private companies and institutions, these are not available for every student.
Farthing’s speech also focussed on the commodification of higher education, expressing a view that the current White Paper enforces a ‘consumer culture’.
“We need to talk about the student experience less in terms of transactions and more in terms of relationships.
“Universities are communities where people come together to create and share knowledge,” said Farthing.
Postgraduate research students are significant as their work leads to changes in curriculums and courses, shaping the university experience.
“We are promised proposals to support research soon, but the government has failed to recognise the experience universities strive to create for students,” said Farthing.
This ‘experience’ is one that involves and includes students in the structure of university learning and living.
Farthing reinforced this, saying: “We do students a disservice if we value them as anything other than active participants in these communities.”
Farthing’s comments received mixed reactions from some students.
Emma, a third year politics student, was surprised by Farthing’s comments, in light of previous action taken by the Vice-Chancellor with regard to financial issues.
She said: “It is interesting that he is talking about the importance of education as an experience, not a commodity.
“This is a man who sacked 115 members of staff as part of a plan to accelerate the university’s growth.”