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Can the Public University Be Saved? The Warwick Higher Education Summit

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"Higher education awaits upheaval" writes University of Warwick Vice-Chancellor Nigel Thrift, likening the current condition of the UK universities sector to a period during the initial eight months after the British entered the Second World War "of relative but threatening calm before serious hostilities began". I find it an apt metaphor for describing the resigned inactivity which characterises widely acknowledged opposition to government plans for universities and students. We witness the collective sensation of examining a sustained blow that is yet to bleed; of preparing for medicine to be administered by an unknown doctor.

Outside of a so-depicted state of academic purgatory, there is the creeping failure of a wider public discourse to meaningfully engage with what can only be recognised as the wholesale reconstruction of universities as a public institution. With dramatic reductions in the universities budget, and a rebalancing of public funding towards directly individual payments - we find a new model for what higher education is expected to provide or achieve.

It is in this context that the term 'public university' has emerged as something both problematic and deeply at stake in the coming years - particularly, I note The Campaign for the Public University and Professor John Holmwood's A Manifesto for the Public University. In this term we find an understanding of the university as an instituted relationship between different sectors of society. However the contract between the terms 'public' and 'university' might be constituted, it is evident that this relationship has been profoundly re-aligned. UK academia now discovers the dilemma of justifying such a relationship within the foregone conclusion of a disconnected public sphere.

The University of Warwick has witnessed a remarkable response to these concerns. Last March, a group of academics led a petition of No Confidence in universities minister David Willetts, which gathered over 1,000 signatures from an unprecedented cross-section of the university. Many of those academics contributed to the Alternative White Paper for higher education; and before Christmas, a large number of Warwick students occupied a space outside the Arts Centre for two weeks - holding outdoor lectures on some of the dilemmas outlined above. All these actions signify a demand for conversation. Resigned inactivity is simply not good enough.

For amongst practical challenges of how to administer and finance higher education and research, is an unaddressed challenge to how universities present the argument of their value to the public. Integral to the academic content of a university education - however it is bought or paid for - has always been an implicit proposal for building a better society. That such wholesale reformulation of what a university education constitutes in the context of this proposal has occurred - and with such snap-and-shut immediacy - must be confronted by policy-makers and academics. If the public argument has been lost, what alternative futures are there for higher education besides effective privatization? If the argument has not been had, how can it be held whilst universities are forced into responding to government policy regardless?

It is these necessary questions, and an environment of "upheaval", which has prompted the Warwick Higher Education Summit (WHES). The summit has been organised for the first time by students through Warwick Hub, with funding from the Vice Chancellor and the Students Union. By asking 'Can the public university be saved?' it calls forward for examination an argument that has either been lost or was never had - and provides a unique platform for dialogue between different areas of the public university relationship. With speakers representing HEFCE, Million+, Research Councils UK, QAA, the New Economics Foundation, the NUS, the NCCPE and more - it promises to be an important event for the sector.

As universities await the full impact of this government's sweeping advance toward a marketisation of higher education, I believe there are real alternative models being put forward that students, academics and policy-makers can consolidate around to reframe the notion of a public value to higher education. As a new wave of students enter our universities paying £9,000 fees - who will in many instances sit in the same lectures as students paying a third of the price - it will become more important than ever, in the inevitable dialogue to be had, that we make a clear argument for their experience to be more than just another consumer transaction. If we don't, we risk losing the capacity university education has for creating dynamic social change - for creating citizens as much as future employees.

If we believe that 'the public university' is an idea that could do with some saving, it is worth taking consideration of the means by which it can be carried forward. Voices such as the Alternative White Paper allow this conversation to continue to exist and be fought for. But it will require input from students, academics, policy-makers and the general public to rebuild these ideas as a national dialogue that can be sustained and re-energised in the coming years. From my own experience, I think that Student Hubs is at the forefront of installing social change at the heart of the university; and providing a new advocacy for a public value to higher education.
The Warwick Higher Education Summit will be held on 28 January at the University of Warwick. You can find further details, and buy tickets at www.warwickHEsummit.org - and follow the summit on Twitter @WHES2012 or using the hash-tag #WHES2012

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