Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 97

Submission from the School of Philosophy at Birkbeck College

  One of the matters the select committee is expressly considering is the effect of the Government's proposals on the Open University and Birkbeck College, London. We thought it might help the committee to have the perspective of some ordinary academics who teach philosophy at the latter institution ((1)). And we make two urgent points about matters of implementation ((2) and (3)).

  1.  Our subject, with its emphasis on analysis and argument, has long been recognised as an important contributor to the skills level in the workforce. And having a first degree in some other subject is often necessary to realise these benefits of philosophical study. To take two examples: we have had a number of health professionals whose studies with us have been required for their subsequent work in medical ethics in the National Health Service; and we have seen how a philosophy degree can transform a student who has acquired subject-specific knowledge from a previous degree into someone more capable of the kind of decision-making needed in an administrative or executive environment. The proposed ELQ policy, crude as it is, has no way of taking into account these kinds of "value-added" contribution; and it will result in a loss to the wider community that could not be balanced by any hoped-for increase in the number of students undertaking degree studies for the first time.

  2.  As the select committee will be aware, it is the historic mission of Birkbeck College to make research-led higher education available to part-time students. As the Leitch report recognizes, this mission is of great contemporary importance, and all of us at Birkbeck remain committed to it. It is indeed hard to see how the goals of the Leitch report could be achieved (in respect of London) without a thriving Birkbeck. But although the Government does not seem to have intended to harm Birkbeck, the ELQ announcement is already causing the college great problems. Undertaking a part-time degree involves a long-term commitment on the part of the student. Part-time undergraduates embarking on courses this autumn will not graduate until 2012; part-time doctoral students will take even longer. The safety-net funding offered by Hefce, however, only covers the years up to 2011; there have been no public assurances about what happens thereafter. Since the impact of the proposed changes on Birkbeck has been well advertised in the press, the uncertainty about the college's future is already deterring prospective part-time students (whether or not they already have degrees) from embarking on courses with us. So we respectfully ask the committee to press the Secretary of State, and the chairman of Hefce, to give public assurances to the committee about the future of Birkbeck after 2011. Without such assurances, the college will start to wither.

  3.  More generally, and whatever the merits of the arguments of principle about the changes to ELQ funding, we think the Government needs to allow much longer for such changes to be implemented. A comparison with events earlier in the life of this Government is instructive. In 1998, the then Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, decided to phase out the "college fee" which the State had paid to Oxford and Cambridge colleges to support the tutorial system in those universities. Even in Oxford and Cambridge, the withdrawal of this funding was generally recognized as fair: it was hard to justify a situation where the State supported students who had been admitted to the collegiate universities much more generously than those who had not. All the same, the Government gave the colleges a full ten years to adjust to the new arrangements: the fee was cut by 10% per annum over a decade. As those of us who were teaching at Oxford or Cambridge at the time well remember, many of the colleges needed every one of those ten years to make the necessary adjustments, despite the fact that the ancient universities are as a whole vastly better endowed than Birkbeck. Withdrawing ELQ funding from Birkbeck is as big change to us as withdrawing the college fee was to Oxford and Cambridge, and expecting Birkbeck to adjust in only three years is punitive. So, assuming that the Government remains committed to phasing out ELQ funding, we respectfully ask the committee to press on the Secretary of State the merits of a much slower phasing-out of that funding.

January 2008

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