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Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, explains why his university and its students’ union has decided to host an independent Commission on Higher Education.

 

As a teacher and a scientist who has worked in universities for more than 40 years, I can never remember a time like this in higher education. At every turn, the precious interaction between student and teacher and the scholarship which underpins it is ranked and measured.

Perhaps it was inevitable that after the move away from public funding to mass participation and student loans, political temperature should rise. Now all parties argue over the alleged interests of the young. Further education feels starved by Higher Education. Industry decries a lack of the skills of the future and universities face a plethora of frameworks and metrics, parliamentary reviews and now a regulatory consultation backed by a threat of deregistration. We hear from the Prime Minister that we should expect a review of fees. Much of this is taking place in the name of students, but the sense is that raw politics is never far from the surface.

For teachers and scholars, the rapid shift from respect to political acrimony is bewildering. Dedicated teachers are suddenly accused of everything from pampering snowflakes to encouraging radicalisation. Those who have given their lives to scholarship are under suspicion of lamentable teaching, ripe for control. An internationally-admired historian asks me, what are they on?

In the midst of all this, there is a sense that politics has become fragmented. Talk of markets and KPIs is far removed from education itself. Education policy is being applied but there is little real explanation of what education is for, and who benefits and how. So despite or in fact because of the furore, it has become clear that what is missing is the very thing universities do best. A gathering of evidence from many sources, a broad and far-ranging investigation of our assumptions and their consequences, an attempt to describe function so form and funding can follow.

As it happens, at a time when generations are tragically divided about so much in politics, I have been inspired by the young and the old. First my own wonderful Students’ Union - far from hiding from difficult issues - set itself a genuine challenge: to think about the student and society of the future and consider its own strategy in the light of this. To reflect on the needs of a child born in 2017 and what kind of life and education would be needed.

The voice of experience came from older academics, like the guardians of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. Many of these academicians saw that values of scholarship which had been built over centuries could be at risk if we did not protect them. But to their great credit, they did not think that the way to preserve the best was to avoid all change.

What began with each, and with companies and communities from Rotherham to Shanghai was a conversation - challenging but respectful - about the future of universities in the context of what was needed by students and society. It was the constructive long-term debate which seemed so lacking in our public discourse. One which brought us together to think and rethink. To consider a purpose not for a single department or university, but for the UK.

We decided we could not allow universities to be re-engineered without this voice of independent and careful review. So our University and Students’ Union decided to host a new independent Commission on Higher Education.

Since I made this announcement, I’ve been overwhelmed by just how many individuals and organisations have already come back to me to say that they want to be a part of it. People who, like me, feel that we are sorely in need of a way to bring together what should never have been divided – to think about the education of young people and the way that education works for them and for society more widely. I have also been struck by how many beyond universities believe, if we are to succeed as a nation in what some are calling a Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will need the Education Revolution which goes alongside it – Industry 4.0 matched by Education 4.0.

We need a forum to think together about these challenges.

What I am not seeking is a reflection of my own views – I am on the record as questioning the whole premise for the current marketised view of education. Nor am I trying to simply preserve the status quo.

The debate about the purpose, the quality and the funding of universities is far too important to be left to short-term political interest. It needs the widest debate and the sharpest minds pooling their insights and then handing back to government what we have learned together. It is no good designing a regulator if we do not know what education is for and why.

We have some of the best universities in the world and we owe it to our students and the country to get this right.

If you would like to be involved, please let me know personally or email HECommission@sheffield.ac.uk.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett
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