Response to invitation to feedback from the Higher Education Expo 2013

The organizers of the Higher Education Expo 2013 have been trying to invite me to their event. They also wanted feedback, and eventually asked for feedback on time too many. So I have told them what I have thought. Here is my email to them:

Dear X and Y

Thank you very much for your emails and invitation to attend the Higher Education Expo.

While I appreciate that you have obviously worked hard to put on a major programme with high profile speakers and stands, I have to say that I find the overall tone and content profoundly concerning.

I have now been working in the University sector for 9 years. Prior to that, I have worked in the private sector, including for Glaxo Wellcome (as it then was) and Oxford Gene Technology. Since my own time as a student (1990-97), and with alarming acceleration over the past 9 years, Government and Senior University management seem to have shifted the role of the university in society away from scholarship (research, teaching, learning) and into being part of a ‘global market in higher education’. Within government, we have seen the universities responsibility shift from the Department for Education (where it belongs) into the Department for Business (where it should not be), research funding for fundamental science effectively ceased (due to the impact agenda and increased ‘strategic’ foci of RCUK) and teaching funding in the arts and humanities stopped. Universities have become increasingly ‘top-down’ driven: decisions are made centrally that do not understand or respect the needs for teaching and research. Procurement is an excellent example, with ‘preferred’ suppliers chosen centrally meaning that researchers can no longer access essential world class equipment or reagents. Allocation of PhD funding is another example, with funds now only available in ‘strategically relevant areas’ – stifling innovation.

Your conference is continuing this rhetoric. I see at the top “Meeting Business Challenges” and “Delivering Value for Students”. When I click on the programme I see topics on centralized procurement, driving efficiency etc. Nowhere is this framed in what should be the role for universities: how do we carry out scholarship? How do we nurture talent? How do we support innovation? How do we balance autonomy with collaboration? All these other functions should only serve to support the key goals of universities as they should be. At the moment, research and teaching increasingly serve the functions of corporate management. Your conference, sadly, is framed in such a way as to continue in that wrong direction.

For centuries, British universities operated on a scholarship model, and used to lead the world in innovation and discovery: the laws of motion, splitting the atom, inventing the first computer, discovering the structure of DNA etc. Interestingly, I have worked in a top down R&D organization (GW) and the one thing it was terrible/at was original research: the large corporate ‘business’ model simply does not work in a realm that depends fundamentally on the creative energies of researchers.

So, since you ask for feedback: I think that your Higher Education Expo needs reframing, recasting and reenergising to primarily address the needs for scholarship: passion-led research, learning and teaching.

Wishing you all the best with your Expo.

Yours sincerely