Critics of British universities including Andrew Adonis are peddling “misinformation, muddled argument and even a little malicious intent,” according to the head of a group representing UK vice-chancellors.
Alistair Jarvis, the newly appointed chief executive of Universities UK, did not name the former education minister directly but his call for institutions to fight back follows a summer of criticism from Lord Adonis in the media.
“In the UK, it seems to be open season on universities. Whether it is attacks on the value of a degree, problems with the tuition fees system, senior staff being overpaid, or problems with international students: universities are this summer’s scapegoat of choice,” Jarvis said.
“Whether it is open season or silly season, it has attracted the attention of some prominent commentators, who have taken time out from their summer breaks to catalogue the litany of failings in our university sector.”
Although Jarvis didn’t name Adonis, the speech was a push back against recent criticisms by the Labour peer, who has conducted a high-profile campaign using social and traditional media about rising tuition fees, student debt and vice-chancellors’ pay.
“While universities should certainly be scrutinised and held to account, much of this criticism has been based on little in the way of evidence or context. Indeed, some attacks have lacked any factual accuracy at all,” Jarvis told a conference in Birmingham. “We’ve seen a post-truth summer of misinformation, muddled argument and even a little malicious intent.”
Adonis dismissed Jarvis’s speech as being without substance. “If they were really ‘fighting back’ we would see some fee and VC pay cuts,” he said.
Jarvis’s speech followed an unusual to-and-fro with Adonis over Twitter last week, with the former publicly knocking back the latter’s claim to be speaking to the Universities UK annual conference next month.
Adonis received a more civil rebuke from the Higher Education Funding Council of England (Hefce), which he had urged to clamp down on VC pay. “Neither Hefce nor the Charity Commission is legally empowered to set salary levels for vice-chancellors or other senior executive staff,” the council’s chief executive, Madeleine Atkin, wrote in a blog.
In his Birmingham speech, Jarvis claimed universities improved life chances for students and delivered benefits for society as a whole. “Universities train the people that every community relies upon – our teachers, our doctors, our engineers, innovators and wealth-creators. Currently at UK universities, 63,000 nurses, 62,000 doctors and dentists, and 75,000 teachers are being trained,” Jarvis said.
Jarvis argued that despite its rising cost, a university degree still led to substantial benefits and a graduate premium in earnings, as well as transforming lives for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. “A university education has also been shown to be a good route to health and happiness. Studies show that on average, graduates enjoy better health, wellbeing and life satisfaction,” Jarvis said.