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UK HE must put its house in order to maintain global excellence

News on higher education over the past week highlights an urgent need for the sector to get to grips with ethical issues that have a bearing on the way it is managed and governed, argues Sandra Booth,  Director of Policy and External Relations at Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD).

 

In an April Fool’s week of pivotal Brexit deadlocks, missed deadlines and the longest case of extenuating circumstances deferral…….ever, the world scrutinised our Brexit shambles, headlines criticised our confused position in global politics, and domestically, the duality of ethical and unethical HE practices were contrasted.

The UK is tackling an identity crisis resulting in breaking news this weekend of ‘European Union’ being removed from our passports even though Brexit hasn’t happened. Adding to our anxiety, the Office for Students told us to make more realistic planning assumptions, the Education Secretary Damian Hinds issued 23 written warnings on the use of conditional unconditional offers, UCU warned staff stress levels are rising and our computer systems were ethically hacked.

Clearly, we can do better.

In a more ambitious move HE welcomed the Times Higher Education new impact rankings based on UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 500 universities from 80 countries were assessed to “elevate public perception of universities most committed to service to humanity”. THE says its pioneering Impact Rankings evidences universities’ societal impact. Most media coverage was from THE itself alongside local and social media from achievers in the new rankings and HESA announcements that Business-Community Interaction income reached a record £4.5 billion.

If UK HE wants to be a global partner of choice there isn’t much ambition in the new DfE DIT Strategy for International Education which is predominantly a privileged, post Imperial and patronising sales plan to increase HE revenues from transactional trading activities, education exports and TNE - in my opinion, focussed on replicating past success rather than building collaborative, transformational partnerships. International students accounted for 60 per cent of education exports worth an estimated £26 billion in direct and indirect benefits. Sustaining or increasing market share is uncertain as soft power dwindles and without concrete policies or truly attractive visa regimes in place.

The OfS report on Financial Sustainability of HE Providers in England said the sector is in ‘reasonable’ financial health and notwithstanding demographics, Augar and further economic uncertainty, many institutions predict positive growth including 171,000 full-time students and 20 per cent growth in international over four years. Many newspapers including The Times slammed these ambitious and unrealistic growth forecasts casting doubt on targets. ‘Universities overestimating future student numbers’ said The Guardian. Furthermore, Mark Carney, Governor of Bank of England, warned of an ‘economic shock’, increased borrowing and risk of no deal as alarmingly high yet the HE sector is collectively going for growth.

This all begs the question whether top management are optimistic or delusional? By stifling innovation and creativity, as Michael Shattock provoked through his Centre for Global Higher Education’s lecture ; making poor planning assumptions; failing to ensure the well-being of UK academics (a UCU staff survey showed nine out of ten Nottingham Trent University staff suffered from workload-related stress); failing to keep IT infrastructure robust, as highlighted by HEPI/JISC; and being called out on unethical recruitment tactics – it is clear to me that while there may be much to celebrate in UK HE,  there is more to reflect on and morally improve.

Whilst members of the House of Lords highlighted the “total uncertainty” ahead for the UK's future participation in Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes, countering these concerns, Nick Hillman of HEPI and Michael Gove in the Daily Express commented on why Brexit is not the worst disaster that could have happened.

Damian Hinds clearly thinks the sector could do better demanding action on unconditional offers, telling 23 institutions to cease pressure-selling, calling the practice “unethical”, and arguing it is unacceptable for students to feel “backed into a corner”. THE reports that OfS will carry out a “comprehensive” review of university admissions practices. A leader in The Times said the decision to “name and shame” was long overdue, calling unconditional offers ‘objectionable’ since they “disincentivise students from studying in their last year at school”. Dr Greg Walker, Chief Executive of MillionPlus, cautioned that universities take their autonomous responsibility for admissions seriously. WonkHE suggested, legally, victims of pressure-selling should get money back and asked why OfS hasn’t emphasised this.

Further unethical practice across HE include essay mills (thankfully PayPal is preparing to withdraw services from essay-writing firms);  parent’s writing personal statements; and, of particular concern in times of austerity, ever-increasing university marketing expenditure.

Undoubtedly, HE needs to be more enterprising. Professor Shattock warns "the 'business model' of university governance" is in "danger of producing an academic climate which represses rather than stimulates creativity and innovation". Leaders are morally challenged to rise above mediocre managerialism and show some ambition. However, Jim Dickinson writing for WonkHE calls for balance rather than a chaotic gamble for growth and ‘rampant marketisation’, from individual institutions who should consider the ethical concerns for the sector overall.

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