Our Response to the White Paper on Higher Education
6 July 2011
The Government has now published its long awaited White Paper on Higher Education promising to `put students at the heart´ of the UK´s university system.
Following on from its controversial decision on tuition fees, the document points to a greater emphasis on students as active consumers exercising the power of choice, increasing competition and the range of institutions eligible to offer degrees, including colleges and private providers. It also includes proposals on enhancing the student experience, increasing social mobility and reducing regulation.
The response of commentators ranges from alarm to anti-climax. But what do these latest developments in Government policy mean for the University of Sheffield? How should we respond?
My own view is that while we should take the time to consider the detail of the proposals, we should not be diverted from our well thought out plans framed in the light of our own values.
Naturally, we need to consider carefully how the White Paper´s proposals might impact on this University and on our own students. We are modelling the way we might see the student number controls operating, and want to make sure Government is made aware of the potential for unintended consequences that can plague a change of this sort.
But in its broad themes and its detail there is still substantial scope for consultation and for change. Our role will be to engage actively in this process and the plans for implementation, offering intelligent input from a position of principle and knowledge. Crucially I want to avoid simply responding to the shifting tides of policy. I want us to frame our own vision of what it means to be a University.
For more than a year we have been considering the nature of our values and priorities and how these translate into our plans and objectives. We have debated what we think the University of Sheffield has to offer, what we are for. Following one of the most detailed such reviews of any UK university, we are clear that our students are far more than customers – they are participants who learn and then go on to produce knowledge, to make a difference in the world. They are not simply consumers of an educational product, they are partners in our mission.
It is all too easy at times of economic duress to focus purely on financial indicators, but universities have always stood for much more.
In the debate about university funding, mission groups and fees, there is, I believe, a wider question which is increasingly taking hold – "What are our universities for?" Alongside arguments about entry qualifications, contact hours and graduate destinations, there is a more fundamental debate about whether a university is a place of aspiration and transformation, or simply a platform for economic progression and return on investment.
I believe the University of Sheffield has a distinctive voice in this debate. According to The Economist, the University of Sheffield is the only English university in the Times Higher Education Top 100 World Reputation rankings to have exceeded our benchmark on proportion of state-school full-time undergraduates.We have compromised neither our ambitions nor our principles. We now face a challenge to continue this vision, working hard within economic realities to offer an outstanding education to all those who have the talent to benefit from it – regardless of their background – and holding on to the conviction that it matters more how to shape the future than where your journey began.
In this year´s BBC Reith lecture recorded in secret, the Burmese Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi described the great value she put on "the freedom of reaching out to other minds". She concluded: "We are struggling with open eyes to turn our dream… into a reality."
This freedom to reach out to other minds is at the heart of all we do – it is the creative spark which invigorates our teaching, inspires our research and translates ideas into action. It is this ambitious vision which will continue to make Sheffield a place which able students from all over the world choose to make their educational home.
Professor Keith Burnett