Yesterday I attended an event organized by the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) in London. The topic was 'Higher Education in Recessionary Times' and the format of the day was that a panel of speakers made brief presentations, the audience broke into small group discussions, and then questions were fed back to the panel in a plenary session. This process worked particularly well and the quality of the discussion was very good. I'll just provide a few points that were made by each speaker.
Professor Mary Evans from the LSE (you can watch her giving a keynote at a CELT conference here) argued that the recession will be experienced differently by different institutions. Some universities are well resourced and will ride out the recession, whereas others will be pushed into concentrating on providing 'value' for the economy which may be difficult to undo in future years.
Professor Louise Morley, director of CHEER at the University of Sussex, talked about the shift in blame from the private to the public sector and the narrative of underperformance which is currently bombarding those of us in universities. She asked us to do some creative imagining of the universities of the future (nicely linking in with the theme of our upcoming CELT Symposium) in order to change some of the 'tired' discourses that are circulating around the problems in higher education.
Wes Streeting, the President of the National Union of Students, noted that there are many different (and sometimes contradictory) voices speaking up for HE at the moment, and he called for a more united front between some of the organizations which speak on behalf of universities.
Finally, Professor Sir David Watson from the Institute of Education, London, remarked that although universities in the UK have enjoyed a relatively large amount of academic freedom, they had been suffering lately from a spell of 'initiative-itis' during which time they were busy responding to a range of initiatives with earmarked funding. He wondered whether there might be even greater autonomy of universities when the recession is over, or perhaps when the problems in higher education are seen by the government as too hard to solve.
Some lively discussions took place afterward, particularly when someone asked whether, if there is a crisis in higher education, the 'blame' should rest squarely on the managers of universities. The divided opinion in the room was rather evident at that point. There were some key questions raised during the day which would be usefully aired in a similar forum in Ireland. Let's hope we have provocative discussions around some of these issues here in Galway in June.