Magazine article Times Higher Education

White Knight Defence

Magazine article Times Higher Education

White Knight Defence

Article excerpt

The CDBU's set-up is too narrow, too limiting: to fulfil its aims it must reach out and diversify, argues Alice Bell.

With a flurry of op-eds, a campaign was launched last week: the Council for the Defence of British Universities, backed by a line-up of eminent intellectuals and standing up for academic freedom. Who in our sector could possibly object?

But the response, at least from the bits of higher education I inhabit, has been far from warm. "Council of grumpy old men, more like" was bandied around rather a lot, which is probably unfair. There are some excellent people involved. The CDBU's 66 founding members are not all middle-aged, pale, male Oxbridge professors or Lords of the realm. Well, not quite.

It isn't clear where the council stands in relation to other higher education policy initiatives of recent years, such as the Campaign for the Public University. Also, a logo shaped like a shield? A launch in the high-ceilinged rooms of the British Academy? A list of founding members that includes 16 peers? The whole idea of a "council" rather than a more grass-roots campaign? It does all start to look a bit more like the Establishment defending privilege than a meaningful statement about the future of higher education.

Before I'm accused of a lack of solidarity, I want to stress up front that this piece is not meant as an outright critique of the council. Many of its aims are ones I'd subscribe to. But its approach so far leaves me uneasy and I know a lot of other people feel this way, too. So I offer this in response to more supportive pieces previously published by Times Higher Education in the hope of opening a constructive debate.

The council has clearly gone to some effort to express a particular image of British intellectualism. But why this image precisely? It's not just that it could be less Russell Group-dominated, it needs to more fully reflect the range of people who make up our universities - students, postdocs, administrators - and the rich fabric of academic work. It is true that the CDBU has brought in people from outside academia, but really they could have looked a bit further afield than Sir Simon Jenkins and Alan Bennett. …

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