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When ideology meets reality … integrity suffers

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When ideology meets reality … integrity suffers

The Browne Review Report is now widely regarded as one of the weakest reports on higher education among the many that have been produced for Government over the years. It has been criticised for its philistinism in representing only utilitarian values for higher education, for its ideological commitment to the market, and for its narrow frame of reference and failure to commission research sufficient to provide the evidence-base for the wholesale transformation of the funding regime for higher education that it was recommending. It now seems that the Review Group also lacked the integrity expected of a body given with such an important task.

A damning report by the Times Higher now reveals, the Review team suppressed what little research they did commission. A Freedom of Information request has uncovered the results of a survey of parents and young people about their attitudes to fees. What it showed was that they felt that the highest fee that was reasonable to charge was £6000, that fees should be the same for all institutions, and that higher fees would have a disincentive effect on applicants from poorer backgrounds.

Of course, this sample of members of the public likely to be most directly affected by the changes could be mistaken in their views. Nonetheless, it would normally be regarded incumbent upon a Review to weigh the evidence, to present the survey results and then set out why they are potentially mistaken. The Review Group did address arguments that higher fees might be a disincentive. But their claims that they would not were made by reference to the consequences of the introduction of fees after the Dearing Report, which were not variable and were considerably lower than the Browne Report was to recommend. The fact that they made no reference to the evidence from their own commissioned survey is, at best, disingenuous, and, at worst, dishonest.

Professor Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and member of the Browne Review, has recently written about the ‘unhelpful posturing’ of critics who look for ‘conspiracy theories’ of how the Report arrived at its conclusions.  He has also written of the naivety of critics of the Browne Report who did not properly understand it. Will he now make himself equally available to explain why the evidence gathered by the Review was suppressed rather than examined?

The conduct of the Browne Review is shocking to the academic community precisely because standards of integrity in the gathering and presentation of evidence are at the heart of academic values.  The Government, for its part, has previously represented the Review as a properly conducted consultation preparatory to the introduction of far-reaching reforms.

Academics at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford have written an open letter to Mr Willetts and Dr Cable, calling for a Public Commission of Inquiry. The story of suppressed evidence reported by the Times Higher makes such a Public Commission more urgent than ever. The Browne Review Report has lost all credibility as a basis for policy in higher education. At the Campaign for the Public University we join our colleagues at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Only a Public Commission of Inquiry can restore legitimacy to the process.

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