The LSE-Gaddafi affair: the lesson for UK Higher Education policy

Creative Commons License photo credit: Tracy O

In a perceptive comment on the LSE-Saif Gaddafi affair, Richard Sennett notes that LSE director Howard Davies “didn’t create the problem of the dodgy donor – he succumbed to a structural danger that is built into the [UK] educational system.” To outsiders the LSE’s decsision to supervise Gaddifi’s PhD and take donations from funds he controls could appear either naive, underhand or worse. However, Sennett raises an important point that bears further consideration as it implies that we should expect more of these problematic funding arrangements in UK Higher Education in future.

Consider the following:

1. Universities are expected to both teach more students and produce world class research while having their government funding cut.

2. University degrees are treated as a private good that prepare students for the employment market. Hence, universities are told told be more engaged with the needs of private business.

3. University research is to to be increasingly judged on the basis of ‘impact’ – how it translates into public activity, particularly how it it is taken up and used by private and public bodies.

Successive governments have encouraged universities to cope with these constraints by doing the following:

1. Accepting increasing numbers of premium-fee paying foreign (non-UK/non-EU) students.

2. Seeking funds from private donors and alumni (along the lines of the endowments that sustain universities in the US)

3. Selling their expertise to private and  public bodies to ensure that it is not locked away in the academy (and that researchers can demonstrate ‘impact’).

Under those circumstances is it any surprise that a UK Higher Education institution accepted a foreign, premium fee student for a 3 year course and then accepted his alumni contribution to the continued running of the institution? Moreover, when experts in democratic transition were invited to advise a country that is surely in need of such a political transformation, is it any surprise they took the opportunity? Of course you could argue that they should have resisted such temptation and made a principled stand. And yet if institutions are being encouraged to balance their tricky funding equations by behaving more like private sector businesses it is competition, not principles, that they are being urged to accept as their guiding motive.

Why is it important to bear these factors in mind? Overall it is successive governments that have established this structural framework. And let us not forget that, in the UK at least, governments are elected and thus have the support of the electorate. Even in a situation where parties cannot secure the support of a majority of the population – as is the case with the current ruling coalition – a sizeable part of the electorate is responsible for the subsequent policies they implement.

So far from being a story of individual failings, the LSE-Saif Gaddafi story is one in which successive governments and electorates are embroiled. It is worth bearing this context in mind before leaping to rash conclusions. Moreover, if we don’t want to repeat stories such as the LSE-Saif Gaddafi affair then perhaps we – as a society – need to reverse the current direction of travel of UK Higher Education policy. If you want a principled higher education system then you need to recognise the public good it provides and match it with adequate funding, thus removing the market incentives that encourage exploitation of resources despite the ethical implications.

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