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Reps' HE Newsletter August 2019

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Reps' Monthly Higher Education Update

August 2019

This is a monthly update for our Reps on what's going on in the Higher Education sector. In this month's newsletter, we consider a critical review of British university education featured in an August edition of the New Statesman and Glasgow University's £20million reparations for its past links with slavery.


The great university con?

A compelling article in the New Statesman, “The great university con,” argues that British university degrees have lost their value as a consequence of gradual marketisation and “perverse incentives”.

Harry Lambert argues that the story often told by British universities and politicians today – that our universities are world-class, our graduates are intelligent and well-qualified, that our education standards are some of the best in Europe – is deeply flawed.

Some say that more students are getting Firsts and 2:1s because students are more talented than they were in the last century; others say that British universities are so good that they can turn anyone into a top graduate. Lambert dismisses both these theories.

Drawing on statistics and interviews with lecturers and graduates of British universities, Lambert claims that there has been a collapse in academic standards. Academics are awarding more students top marks and letting students pass exams when they should have failed. They are teaching easier courses, telling students what they need to know to pass their exams.

Lambert draws attention to students too. He quotes academics who believe that many of the students currently at university are (according to one lecturer) “semi-literate,” unable to think properly and reliant on academics telling them the answers. These students don’t bother with the required reading or making notes; they just want to know what will get a good grade.

The causes of these problems, argues Lambert, can be traced back to reforms to the education sector under the Thatcher governments. As a result of the government’s market-focused attitudes, universities became more and more like businesses, bringing in senior management teams and describing the wealth that their graduates generate. Today, these management teams focus on keeping their universities in good spots on league tables, in receipt of good reviews and satisfaction ratings from students, at the expense of providing a sound education and supporting the public good.

Lambert’s views are unlikely to be held by any senior figures at British universities, but many academics within universities agree with his assessment of the state of higher education today.

If Lambert’s assessment is true, how can universities be fixed? What do you think?

You can read Harry Lambert’s article here.


Reparations for slavery

Glasgow University will pay £20,000,000 in reparations after finding that its foundation was financially supported by slave traders.

The money will go toward a research centre, based jointly in Glasgow and the Carribbean, shared with the University of the West Indies.

Glasgow University is the first British university to formally agree to paying reparations. Cambridge University has agreed to look into its own links to the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Most commentators have welcomed Glasgow University’s decision to pay reparations after discovering how much Scottish academia of the past profited from slavery. However, some have linked Glasgow’s reparations to earlier movements relating to universities that benefited from slavery and colonialism.

The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement challenged the University of Oxford to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes located at Oriel College. Rhodes played a key role in the foundation of the University of Cape Town, but he benefited from the exploitation of South Africans and was motivated to bring civilisation led by the “Anglo-Saxon race” to the “uncivilised world” of Africa.

At the time, the movement was criticised. The student campaigners had to accept that history is full of unpleasant details that we are powerless to change, said commentators; rather than trying to cut out the bits of history that they didn’t like, mature students should have accepted it and moved on.

In the same way, some argue that Glasgow University ought to move on from historic debates. Joanna Williams, formerly a part-time academic at Kent University and a regular contributor to Spiked Online, told the BBC: For me, the number one problem with this is that it suggests people who are alive today bear some historical responsibility for what their ancestors did in the past. [These were] truly barbaric and criminal acts, but to suggest that people alive today are responsible for the sins of their ancestors is a step too far… There comes a point we all need to move on from that and say that the past is the past.”

Was Glasgow University right to agree to pay reparations? Should other universities look into their pasts to see whether they were once funded by slave traders?


HE news in brief

  • Zamzam Ibrahim, President of the National Union of Students, echoed Harry Lambert’s criticisms of our universities
  • the Guardian reports that there could be more strikes from members of the University and College Union in the near future, stemming from a long-running dispute over pensions 
  • a graduate of business studies from the University of Oxford is most likely to have the highest graduate job salary in the country, according to the Department of Education and analysed in the Telegraph 


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