By CivilServiceWorld

19 Sep 2012

A plea for sensible policy-making – and more cash

“I am an Oxbridge academic at a very senior level. I’ve been head of an Oxford department and acting master of my current college, and have been involved in admissions of sixth formers for about 40 years. My job involves tutorial teaching, lecturing undergraduates, and supervising PhD and Master’s students.

While there have been many policy changes at the national level that have made my job harder, and – in the case of the hike in tuition fees – deeply saddened me, there have also been initiatives of which I approve. Very recently the government has made aspects of Oxbridge income conditional on our taking, on average, over 60 percent of our students from state schools. The colleges I’ve worked for have always wanted a good proportion of state school pupils, so this policy hasn’t been a problem. And while some colleges will have felt constrained by it, I think this is one target that we certainly should be implementing.

Another relevant policy, introduced a few years ago and continued by the coalition, is the Research Excellence Framework. Many colleagues have resented it ever since it came in (as the Research Assessment Exercise), but it meant academics could no longer get away with doing no research. It made it easier to get rid of dead wood, and generally academics have been made more accountable to government in things like teaching standards, so I think standards have gone up.

However, other laws affecting higher education I’ve witnessed have been nothing short of ridiculous. Three years ago, for example, the government suddenly increased the demands on people who were coming into temporary academic posts from outside the EU, particularly young researchers. Oxford and Cambridge have always wanted to be free to give JRFs (junior research fellowships) to outstanding researchers from outside Europe: it’s good for the university, it’s good for researchers, and it’s good for Britain: it creates lasting links between academic communities in the UK and the rest of the world, and enhances the UK’s international research reputation. But suddenly the UK Border Agency laid down absurd demands, such as that we should advertise with the local Jobcentre. People are never going to look in the Jobcentre for posts like that.

Another really impractical thing they demanded was that only a few months should elapse between placing the advert and having the person in post. That’s just not possible with a JRF. The process is a lengthy one: you have to give people a chance to submit their work; the work has to be assessed by experts; and then their reports have to be assessed by academics within the colleges. There was a huge amount of discussion with the civil service, and the master of Emmanuel College Cambridge, Richard Wilson – who had been a top-flight civil servant – spent a long time talking to the UK Border Agency, trying to make them see that these conditions just couldn’t be applied to Oxbridge JRFs. Then, at the last minute, when everyone had wasted a huge amount of time, the government suddenly changed its mind, and said: “Okay, you can have 10 months or whatever you need between placing the ad and having the person in post.” All of that could have been avoided if there had just been a bit of proper consultation right at the beginning.

If I had a chance to speak to current policymakers, one thing I’d say on a practical level is: don’t make it so difficult for Chinese students to get visas. There are fantastically clever people in China, and we need to be cooperating with the Chinese and sharing know-how at the highest level. But at the moment it’s as if the British put obstacles in the way of Chinese people who want to study here. This isn’t widely publicised, but it’s known to some British academics and it’s notorious in China. China, whether we like it or not, is the face of the future.

There’s something else I’d say, and this is very difficult: I do believe that there’s a difference between Oxbridge and the Russell Group on the one hand, and the new universities – the ‘post-1992’ universities, or former polytechnics. I’m sounding like a real reactionary here, but some of those degrees probably aren’t worth having and a lot of people who’ve taken them might have done better to have some sort of apprenticeship in a trade. So I’d say: please put more funding into the Russell Group and Oxbridge. Having this wonderful university sector is part of what makes Britain a great country, so they’ve got to be the government’s priority. Too much of a priority was given to the 1992 universities, and creating them has diluted the funding – to say nothing of the fact that some of their vice-chancellors are earning hundreds of thousands of pounds. So I think another look needs to be taken at the issue of funding higher education, with a sense that the Russell Group and Oxbridge are, if I can put it this way, part of the glory of the nation.”

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