University Head Shouldn't Stand By as Universities are Treated Like a Political Football

04/05/2012 12:22 BST | Updated 04/07/2012 10:12 BST

This week is Universities Week, a chance for everyone involved in the higher education sector to shout from the rooftops about all the brilliant work that our universities do. Considering the controversy and arguments that surround the issue of education and its future at the moment it's good that we take the time to collectively appreciate what it is we're fighting for.

Which is why the latest comments to emerge from coalition MPs about why the Higher Education Bill was quietly dropped earlier this year, leaving parliament and the public with no chance for scrutiny of changes to higher education, are so undignified. If these MPs really wanted make Ministers to come clean on their plans for higher education we'd welcome them to the cause and stand alongside them calling on David Willetts and Vince Cable to make their intentions clear in parliament but instead they choose to brief anonymously and use something as important as the future of higher education to score a few cheap political points off the MPs they are supposed to be working with.

Not having the scrutiny in the Houses of Parliament, in the media and in public of the government's plans that a higher education bill would provide is a dangerous attempt to bypass accountability and that is why students from all over the country came to parliament last month to lobby their MPs on this very issue. The changes proposed in the higher education white paper were as significant to universities and students as the health bill was to the NHS and they deserve the same public scrutiny rather than being slipped through the back door at the stroke of a ministerial pen.

So, Ministers are shying away from debate and backbench MPs are using universities as political football, deeply concerning in itself but it's not just those in parliament who are endangering our universities, the people who run them have been worryingly quiet as well. Recently I spoke to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) conference and I told the gathered heads of universities and other policymakers that our universities do a great deal of good but that many of their senior leaders had failed to stand up for their institutions.

Our universities, I told them, have great strength in depth, a wonderful and powerful range of teaching and research, diverse in style and subject that puts our university sector as a whole amongst the best in the world. I drew attention to a recent report that almost all university students would earn more money over their lifetimes than those that didn't go into higher education. Crucially, at a time of ever increasing unemployment, graduates are much more likely to be unemployed than those with lower level qualifications. Then there are the social and cultural benefits of the melting pot campuses of the UK, the excellent representation of women and the impact of students' unions, societies and clubs on their communities. Universities are an undoubted and provable good in society.

But yet the Vice-Chancellors who run our universities stood by quietly as budgets were slashed; they meekly accepted the imposition of a forced market in fees that they know will be bad for many universities and the consequences have been chaos and obfuscation.

The government has more changes planned, we know they do because they published a white paper outlining them all but when the going got tough and they didn't fancy another fight on the scale of the one they got over the increased privatisation of NHS services so they dropped the bill but not the plans.

We believe changes that will increase the incursion of profit-making companies into education, destabilise the sector by moving the controversial 'core and margin' goalposts, retrospectively change the cost of loans and further slash core teaching funding can be made even without legislation and that making such moves in undemocratic and that the government should come clean immediately and table an HE Bill so that their plans get the scrutiny they need.

I think university leaders believe the same thing and that they should stand up and say so. When sniping MPs use one of the best education systems in the country to derail the plans of another political party they shouldn't let it go past without taking a swing. When the government push them into offering virtually useless partial fee waivers instead of bursaries and simultaneously causing already diminished funds to diminish further then they should resist publicly. And when the government tries to introduce damaging increases in for-profit companies in universities they should stand with students, who voted at NUS Conference this month for continuing national action, in saying enough is enough.

Vice-Chancellors proudly proclaim that their institutions are core to civic society and essential to challenging accepted wisdom and yet renege on their responsibility to speak out as academic commentators on deeply damaging public policy. Until they step up it is left to students to say "Our universities are our future and we will not let you endanger them without a fight."