Brexit and the closure of Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning


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The University of Leicester’s Council has decided to continue with the planned closure of its Lifelong Learning Centre. This has been an unedifying process for the University, which found itself on the receiving edge of criticism from its own staff, as well as from the local councils and MPs.In the process, the University got itself some extremely unfavourable media coverage, particularly after Private Eye exposed its rationale as being less than truthful.

As a governing body which exists to hold the University’s management to account, you’d have thought Council might have asked the Vice Chancellor why he thought it was a good idea to get into Private Eye. If other members of staff had generated such negative publicity, they would have been accused of bringing the University into disrepute. And the Eye exposed flaws in the University’s case that lay members in particular should have found disturbing. But Council showed no such backbone.

The Centre’s supporters, meanwhile, ran a magnificent #savevaughan campaign. Former students, part-time staff and local people all spoke about what lifelong learning had meant to them, and how it had changed learners’ lives. The campaigners made wise use of Freedom of Information legislation to pinpoint inaccuracies in the University management’s case. Following an embarrassing few months, presumably Leicester’s Vice Chancellor will shortly be asking his colleagues in Universities UK to renew their self-interested attack on the Freedom of Information Act.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, I thought I’d check what Leicester University’s management had to say about Brexit. Generally, the higher education sector in Britain is strongly Europhile, and several universities abandoned their usual non-political stance to argue publicly for a Remain vote. Paul Boyle, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, was one of those who signed an ‘open letter to British voters‘ calling for them to vote Remain. After the result was declared Boyle described it as: “a shocking result for the nation and its universities and a dark day for UK science”.

No doubt Professor Boyle, like many other senior academics, now blames ‘British voters’ for their failure to understand the complexities of the EU, and thinks they should never have been asked for their view on its future. But an informed and tolerant citizenry is exactly what the Vaughan Centre existed to support. Closing it is a slap in the face to the city and its people, and it weakens the University’s contribution to and place within the local and national lifelong learning system.


Self-congratulation – eight years after the event

None of this stops the University management from boasting in their agreement with the Office for Fair Access about their success in attracting and retainng adult learners, and claiming – rather ambiguously – that they will in future ‘work to better understand the student experience for young and mature students’. Nor does it prevent them from inserting the usual guff about local communities into their corporate strategy.

Finally, I suspect that the minor – maybe non-existent – savings from closing Vaughan will do virtually nothing to help Boyle in his proclaimed aim “to pioneer a distinctive elite of research-intensive institutions”. It will simply further detach the University from the community that brought the University into being.



Universities and freedom of information

The Independent Commission charged with reviewing Freedom of Information legislation has now issued its report. Its chief conclusion is that “the Act is generally working well, and that it has been one of a number of measures that havehelped to change the culture of the public sector”. It recommends a number of changes, some of them extending the scope of the law, and some intended to clarify its operation. Nothing, at least on a first read, seems to involve major change.


Nicola Dandridge  of UUK

Well, you might say, if nothing’s changing why write about it? The short answer is that a lot of powerful individuals and bodies hoped that the Act would be changed significantly, among them most of Britain’s universities. The Commission said that 74 public bodies had submitted evidence to it, most of them complaining that the Act was burdensome and asking for restrictions. University heads have been lobbying governments in England and Scotland for some time about the law, and in England at least government was willing to consider change.

This case was put directly to the Commission by Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, who attended to present evidence in person. According to Dandridge, the higher education sector supported the principles behind the Act, but was suffering from a huge rise in the costs of compliance, allied to the growing competition between public universities subject to the legislation and private providers who are not. And I really encourage you to read the transcript of the subsequent discussion.

The veteran Labour MP Jack Straw, former cabinet minister and onetime student leader, gave her a particularly torrid time, exposing a number of holes – or less charitably, errors – in her knowledge. Equally damaging, when pressed for an example of the harm done by answering FoI requests, Dandridge chose the topic of ‘non-academic salaries at senior level’. She didn’t know the size of private higher education provision (her guess of 10-15% of students is way off the mark). She was unable to understand a Liberal Democrat peer who suggested that being subject to FoI could be seen as an advantage, when compared to the less transparent private universities.

New Picture (1)

Little wonder that the Commission concluded that the evidence provided by Universities UK (and the Russell Group) was ‘unpersuasive’, finding that ‘it continues to be appropriate and important for universitiesto remain subject to the Act’. But this may not be the end of the matter.

The Government has the right to reject part or all of the advice it receives from the Commission in respect of the English legislation, and the Vice Chancellors’ lobby will continue. Scottish the university heads are lobbying  separatelyfor exemption from the FoI Scotland Act, on the grounds that it diverts resources towards answering questions and away from teaching and research. This is as spurious an argument as those advanced to the Commission, and again it does the sector’s reputation no good.

It should be clear by now that I support the FoI legislation, and argued for such a law back in the 1980s. I see the 2000 Act as one of a number of significant achievements of the much-maligned New Labour government (and no, I am not usually a Labour Party supporter). I also think that universities should be comfortable with the idea that they are public institutions with public obligations, even if some of their funding comes from private sources.

Of course the Act does cause some problems. I’ve encountered companies trying to access interview data that relate to the health impact of their products, but we saw them off. Many requests are dealt with simply by pointing people to the relevant web link, others contravene data privacy. On the other hand, it is not hard to come up with plenty of cases where the Act has worked in the public interest, from exposing off-payroll payments for senior staff to universities reliance on corporate sponsors to explanations of admissions decisions. The legislation has justified itself, and it’s time for university heads to get over it.



Should freedom of information apply to higher education policy?

What should we be told about educational policy? I ask only because I’ve just been looking at the papers of the Scottish Funding Council’s Access and Inclusion Committee. At its meeting on 13 September, the Committee’s agenda listed four items for discussion, with papers attached. But only one paper is available for the public to read.

Three papers were withheld.  One was a report on students with additional and complex needs; one was an overview of the 2012-13 outcome agreements, which link institutional funding to national priorities; and one had the glorious title of Strategic priorities for access funding looking ahead.

The Freedom of Information Act works on the presumption that the public has a general right to know how it is governed, and that exceptions would be rare. So why is SFC refusing to publish these particular reports?

In all three cases, SFC deemed that publication would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs. This is a rather general claim, and not one that it is easy to test – at least, not without quite a deal of trouble. But it does make me wonder how many other SFC documents are deemed too sensitive for the public to read.

This is only one set of committee papers, so I’ll resist the temptation to go off on one.  Yet it is not altogether clear to me why the conduct of public affairs would be harmed by the publication of these three reports.

My guess, for what it is worth, is that by publishing these documents, SFC is worried that college and university principals would try to manoeuvre their own institution into the best position to benefit when the policies are implemented. But won’t that happen anyway – in fact, isn’t that the point of having outcome agreements and identifying strategic funding priorities?

And what about the one item among the papers of the Access and Inclusion Committee that we can read? Why, it is a published report by the National Union of Students. I’m not objecting: it’s an important piece of work looking at fairer access to higher education. But it strikes me as odd that SFC has bothered to make public a report that – well, it’s already been published.