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Michael Arthur half replies to Public University campaign

December 1, 2010

Campaign for the Public UniversityThe Campaign for the Public University last month began an email campaign to Vice-Chancellors of Russell Group Universities, including of course the chair of that group, Michael Arthur. The exchange highlights the manner in which the Russell Group remains silent on some key issues facing higher education in the UK.

The proposed email to send to all RG VCs was:

I am writing to express my deep concern that, as Russell Group Vice-Chancellors, you have welcomed a proposed ‘premium fee’ that will nearly treble the cost of their education for students, while removing the public support for courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This is associated with a ‘soft capped fee’ which will bring a significant cut in income for what you are pleased to regard as ‘non-elite’ universities. Their fate is apparently not a matter of concern, despite the evident excellence of research and teaching across the sector (as demonstrated in the RAE and National Student Survey).

I am aware that you believe that it is inappropriate for the taxpayer to fund higher education, but you are silent about the fact that it is also inappropriate that it should be funded entirely by student contributions. The absence of any defence of the public value of Universities on your part is striking.

The term ‘elite’ implies leadership, but the Russell Group has failed to express anything other than self interest. In the process, you have set yourself against your students and many of your staff. You suggest that, given the defined cuts proposed in the Comprehensive Spending Review, there is no alternative. These cuts to the higher education teaching budget, however, go far beyond those expected of any other publicly funded activity and will fundamentally change the character of higher education.

The forthcoming publication of the White Paper offers an opportunity for debate. I urge you to speak out in support of the public value of universities and against the proposed privatisation of the higher education sector.

Michael Arthur’s reply was:

Thank you for your recent email campaign letter, which showed a significant misunderstanding of the Russell Group’s views and position with respect to the coalition government funding cuts and (for English members only) the coalition’s proposals for higher education funding in England in response to Lord Browne’s review. Comments made below on the proposed fees regime are not relevant to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland

The Russell Group has conducted a concerted, high-profile campaign in public and private to minimise funding cuts by both the previous and current governments over the past eighteen months. For example, you may have seen the article I co-wrote setting out a robust argument against the deep cuts planned by the previous government which hit the front page of the Guardian earlier this year. We are clear that we need funding that will enable the UK to maintain and enhance its world class status and remain a serious global player in higher education.  We have said, repeatedly, that we will find it extremely difficult to sustain this success if we are subject to yet more cuts while our international competitors are investing heavily in their universities.

There is a legitimate view, supported in the recent general election, that it is right and necessary for graduates to contribute to their education and that a higher education system with high levels of participation cannot be funded by taxpayers alone.  This is not new and has been enshrined in public policy in England in one form or another since 1997.  The real problem is not the principle of graduate contribution, but rather the size and distribution (including your concerns about arts, humanities and social sciences) of the cuts that have been visited upon us by our government.

We will continue to argue against the current magnitude of the proposed cuts, but no-one can be in any doubt that this is now a crucial time for our university system. Our graduates need to compete with the best in the world, and we would be letting them down if we did not ensure that they get the very best education.

Given the defined level of government cuts now imposed upon us in England, the only realistic and viable way forward to maintain adequate funding of our current university system is through the proposed increase in fees.  Although it will certainly be challenging, the government’s proposals can, in our opinion, be made to work for the sector and for all disciplines, including the arts, humanities and social sciences – international comparisons would certainly support that view.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Michael Arthur,
Chair of the Russell Group

The Campaign for the Public University’s response to this was:

We do not doubt the sincerity of Russell Group Vice Chancellors in their concern about the drastic cuts in public spending and their consequences for Universities. These were forcefully expressed by their Chair, Michael Arthur, and Director-General, Wendy Piatt, in an article in The Guardian on 11th January.

Since then they have been conspicuous in their failure to condemn the fact that the UK will have among the lowest public spending on higher education of OECD countries. Indeed, they have countenanced shifting the responsibility onto future generations of students, enabling the Government to make the drastic cuts they previously deplored.

In the process, they have also sought to maximise the income of their universities by arguing for differential fees and the removal of the fee cap. Wendy Piatt, for example, responded in positive terms to the Spending Review that made such deep cuts, writing that, “Lifting the fee cap to £9,000 for new students in England from 2012 is a welcome reform that will help our universities maintain and enhance their world-class status. Increased graduate contributions will provide a life-saving cash transfusion for a sector that would otherwise be seriously ailing from the spending review’s deep cuts.”


It is clear that Russell Group Vice-Chancellors believe that to charge less than £9000 would be to face serious financial challenges, yet it is also clear that they expect most Universities to be in this position.

Statements by the Russell Group published since the Browne Review make no mention, let alone criticism, of the withdrawal of public funding from undergraduate programmes in arts, humanities and social sciences.

Professor Arthur now states that, “it is right and necessary for graduates to contribute to their education and that a higher education system with high levels of participation cannot be funded by taxpayers alone.  This is not new and has been enshrined in public policy in England in one form or another since 1997.” He also states that the legitimacy of this view was upheld at the general election. However, it is clear that the election provided no mandate other than for the continued public support of higher education (with one partner in the coalition, at least, presenting itself as against rises in student tuition fees and arguing that, in the long run, such fees should be withdrawn).

If it is ‘right and necessary’ that graduates make a contribution, we do not believe that it is appropriate that a higher education system with high levels of participation should be funded by students alone.

It is Professor Arthur and other Russell Group Vice-Chancellors who remain silent about the illegitimacy of this proposal. Since there was no mandate for it, it is right that they now join the debate as robustly as they began.  We continue to ask Russell Group Vice-Chancellors to join us in condemning it and in supporting the value of education as a public good.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Robert Sansam permalink
    December 1, 2010 1:01 PM

    I wonder how much our VC paid towards his own extensive and profitable education, and what percentage of his salary he feels he should contribute retrospectively.

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