Future of public universities at stake, says thinktank

LONDON, December 10, 2010: The scrap among the main political parties and the media focus on protest violence has taken public attention away from the purpose and future of public universities in the UK, says beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia. [1]

One lecturer, Dr John Heathershaw from Exeter University, who has been engaging in policy debates with students involved in a sit-in there [2], says: “It is difficult not to conclude that recent wrangles about funding are taking place in the twilight of the public university.” [3]

Ekklesia says the tertiary education funding gap could be addressed by a Business Education Tax (BET) which set the level of UK corporation tax at the G7 countries' average – rather than significantly lower. [4]

Proponents say this would not affect 96% of businesses and would help ensure the future of universities, which the 1997 Dearing Report said benefited individuals, companies and the culture of society as a whole.

The think-tank is also backing moves by Christian students and others to refocus protests about the future of education on methods of nonviolence, conflict transformation and dialogue – which they say are among the practical skills public universities should exist to promote. [5]

“What the government is presently doing is not just increasing fees beyond the reach of many ordinary people but eliminating a whole tranche of funding, which imperils the very future of public universities in Britain,” says Ekklesia’s associate director Symon Hill.

“A commercialised, technocratic, and elitist tertiary education system that sidelines arts and humanities and pushes sciences and technology into an marketised cul-de-sac would destroy the university as a place of free learning, creativity and alternative perspectives,” he adds.

The think-tank says that students at Exeter University and elsewhere [6] have been showing the way by using their protest sit-ins against cuts and higher fees to highlight the need to consider funding options within the wider context of education, society and the economy, rather than the other way round.

“The Deputy Prime Minister and other senior politicians declined to discuss these larger concerns with student constituents in the run-up to the parliamentary vote on 9 December,” says Ekklesia’s Symon Hill. “The argument that we can no longer afford public universities in Britain is being allowed to go by default by a political system which is out-of-touch and resistant to wider thinking.”

Exeter University lecturer Dr John Heathershaw added: “In reality, we have been less public and less universal for years. The fees vote in parliament is one more nail in the coffin of both the idea and practice of the university as a public good. But our discussions at Exeter show that there are alternatives. We need to re-focus on them.”

ENDS

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Notes to Editors

1. Founded in 2001, Ekklesia examines politics, values and beliefs in a changing world, from a Christian perspective. It has been listed by The Independent newspaper among 20 influential UK think-tanks. According to Alexa/Amazon, it has one of the most-visited religion and politics / current affairs websites in Britain. More: http://ekklesia.co.uk/content/about/about.shtml

2. See ‘Sit-in students challenge politicians on alternatives to cuts’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13752) and “Too busy' Nick Clegg refused to meet with student constituents’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13751).

3. See ‘The twilight of the public university? Inside Exeter’s occupation’, by John Heathershaw (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13749).

4. See ‘Business can save public universities, say education campaigners’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13754) and the UCU/Compass report ‘In Place of Fees: Time for a Business Education Tax’ (http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/pdf/2/3/inplaceoffees-betax_ucucompass_mar10...) - *.PDF Adobe Acrobat format.

5. Ekklesia and the Student Christian Movement (http://www.movement.org.uk/) are issuing a joint public letter on the issue of violence and non-violence in protest movements. More on the wider issues of conflict transformation (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/3376) and peaceful civil resistance (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/12174).

6. Student sit-ins against education cuts and fee hikes have been taking place in Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, London, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, York and beyond.

7. For further media comment: Symon Hill, Ekklesia associate director (symon.hillATekklesiaDOTcoDOTuk) and John Heathershaw, University of Exeter (johnheathershawATgmailDOTcom).