Minister using ‘bully pulpit’ for political gain, v-cs claim

Promotion of divisive ‘wedge issues’ enhances Donelan’s standing within Tory party by throwing ‘red meat’ to backbenchers, says sector leader

July 5, 2022
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Vice-chancellors have accused Michelle Donelan of using “press pressure” and the “creation of division” for political gain, following the higher education minister’s call for English universities to consider pulling out of voluntary diversity schemes.

Ms Donelan’s letter, which suggested Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter and other diversity schemes were “in tension” with free speech, was prompted by an article in The Sunday Telegraph that accused the sector organisation of “egregious wokery”.

A strongly critical response to the minister from Universities UK president Steve West and interim chief executive Chris Hale, seen by Times Higher Education, said that “many institutions have highlighted that an important line has been crossed with the letter appearing to direct universities to take a specific approach to voluntary assurance frameworks and to internal management structures”.

One vice-chancellor said the letter was the most notable example of a now familiar “modus operandi”, whereby some in the Department for Education seem to work in tandem with hostile coverage in the right-wing press – with that press coverage then cited by ministers and the Office for Students as evidence to justify policy and regulatory action.

This promotion of divisive “wedge issues” and “culture wars” over universities enhances Ms Donelan’s standing within the Conservative Party by throwing “red meat” to backbenchers, the vice-chancellor suggested.

Stephen Marston, chair of Advance HE and vice-chancellor of Gloucestershire University, highlighted a “pattern of attacks” that “has been going on for some months”, targeting first the Athena Swan gender equality charter and then the Race Equality Charter.

This suggested that university efforts to “hold in balance really important imperatives” including upholding academic freedom and freedom of speech are “not understood, and just not appreciated” by the government, Mr Marston warned.

Such concerns are likely to be heightened in future. The government will soon appoint a director of freedom of speech and academic freedom within the Office for Students, whose role will likely be influenced by the stream of newspaper articles on the topic.

Plus, under new quality baselines including a focus on graduate employment, the OfS has said it will use an annual “prioritisation” process to decide which institutions and subject areas falling below baselines merit further investigation and, ultimately, punishment. That has already opened up concerns about political influence by ministers and the targeting of subjects criticised in the press.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland and previously permanent secretary in the DfE, said Ms Donelan was using the “bully pulpit” to “exhort particular behaviours or promote an agenda”.

“Of course, acting this way usually demonstrates that the speaker does not have the power to change anything but is hoping instead to use the power of influence. But…there is a risk that you ‘devalue the currency’ by speaking out on just about anything and everything,” Sir David said.

“In the end though, this is a political choice which may have less to do with higher education policy and more to do with the political objective of keeping the so-called ‘culture wars’ in the news.”

Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, said Ms Donelan’s letter “seeks to politicise universities’ attempts to address the very real and unjust inequalities that many of our staff and students face and seems driven by a desire to create division and conflict when working together is the best way forward”.

Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher and a former adviser to Conservative universities ministers, said: “While trailing policy proposals in newspapers is nothing new, and is a tried-and-tested tactic for governments of all persuasions, using the headlines to name and shame institutions into falling into line with a populist worldview is a worrying development.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Minister using ‘bully pulpit’ to promote ‘culture wars’, say English v-cs

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Reader's comments (2)

I thought her predecessor was bad but in compariso...
Sir David Bell says "acting this way usually demonstrates that the speaker does not have the power to change anything but is hoping instead to use the power of influence"... therein lies the seeds of how to deal with Donelan's attempts to interfere: ignore her. We have seen how political interference and attempts at micro-management have rendered compulsory educations almost unfit for purpose, we have to be vigilant against any attempts to encroach into higher education!

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