Joint statement in response to the Higher Education Green Paper
University of Sheffield Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett and President of the Student’s Union Christy McMorrow respond to the Higher Education Green Paper.
by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor and Christy McMorrow, President of the Students’ Union
As Vice-Chancellor and President of the Student’s Union at The University of Sheffield, we welcome this opportunity to contribute to the consultation on the Higher Education Green Paper. Over recent weeks, both the University and Union have consulted widely on the contents of the Green Paper. We have also reflected our own discussions internally about the values of higher education and what this can and should mean for a university such as ours.
Our University has a progressive spirit, reflecting the culture amongst students and staff. We ask ourselves challenging questions about what a University is for and how it can best achieve these ends. However, we also want to share our concerns about what might threaten the distinctive culture which makes our university an important place of education in its fullest sense.
Students at the University of Sheffield learn in an environment in which research and teaching are closely linked. This is not only true for the many PhD and postgraduate students who directly contribute to research groups and who are co-producers of knowledge. Increasingly the very best teaching and learning experiences are those where students are not passive recipients but who actively engage with their education.
The challenge is how to measure scholarship without falsely separating what must be seen as a whole. A positive education is delivered by an inspiring teacher who may also be a leading researcher, but also by a lab technician or a librarian, a personal tutor or an adviser in entrepreneurship and volunteering. In an international community such as The University of Sheffield, students also learn from one another, with a rich educational experience which goes far beyond the confines of a course.
Specific feedback on the TEF follows, but our shared concern is that metrics do not inadvertently separate teaching in a narrow way from wider scholarship or threaten the academic culture which matters to both students and staff. It is also crucial that measurement includes wider public benefit and takes into account the economic context of both students and subjects, to avoid a purely monetarised view of the value of a degree as a private investment.
Many of the themes within the Green Paper are already of key importance to our university, in particular that of opportunity for talented young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The University of Sheffield was founded over 100 years ago as a ‘University for the people’ supported by donations from local people who wanted to raise opportunity for young people of all social backgrounds, as well as to improve the health and economy of the city.
Today the University is a leading research-intensive university with 24,000 students from over 100 countries, but it still has opportunity and public benefit at its heart. Our Students’ Union leads the biggest volunteering operation in the country, with pro-bono advice and social enterprise at its heart. Our medical faculty directly contributes to the largest excellent rated Hospital Trust in the UK. We have an excellent record for widening participation and for developing significant new routes into higher education, including one of the first programmes in the country to work in deprived areas to encourage children to consider careers in medicine or our support for young people who grew up in local authority care.
As a community we are committed to access to Higher Education in practice. Yet we do not only want to create opportunity for a few individuals, but generate the well-being, excellent healthcare, prosperity and improvements in society which we know our university can bring to the wider community, including those who may never come through our doors.
Student choice and the market for Higher Education
Our most fundamental concern within the Green Paper is the proposed move towards a marketised model of Higher Education, and the implications within this that universities are providers, students are customers and that education is a product.
The relationship between teachers and students is crucial to our University. Students are members of our university, and will continue to be so long after they complete their degrees. Many alumni continue to offer support and mentoring to students and young graduates.
There can and should be different ways of teaching and learning, appropriate to the subject and needs of students. We work together to challenge ourselves to constantly improve teaching and we are at the forefront of new kinds of provision such as over 600 employer-funded degree apprenticeships linked to our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. Our Students’ Union has warmly embraced the opportunity to work with others to make our city the best in the UK to be an apprentice.
However, to commercialise education and to move towards a context of simplified exit and entry of private provision could threaten the long-term commitment and relationships which are core to the education for which Sheffield is rightly held in high regard around the world.
Education is an investment, but it is not a purely private or financial one. It flows from the commitment of a country and one generation to another, knowing that nurturing and developing the talents of young people and encouraging them to broaden their horizons and to learn how to learn is vital for our city, our country and the future of our planet. We would encourage the government to continue to recognise this at the core of higher education, and as an obligation and demonstration of the values of a civilised society.
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