Can the Oxford Dons turn the tide in the Higher Education debate?

Next Tuesday hundreds of Oxford academics will debate and vote on a motion of no confidence in the policies of the Universities’ minister David Willetts.

David Barclay is the President of the Oxford University Student Union OUSU

Next Tuesday hundreds of Oxford academics will don their traditional gowns and take their place in the famous Sheldonian Theatre for a tradition as old as its name suggests – Congregation. By the time they leave, having debated and voted on a motion of no confidence in the policies of the Universities’ minister David Willetts, they may have made their own piece of history.

From the publication of the Browne Review (pdf) in October the government has been engaged in a furious battle with students over its proposed new university fees system. With the passage of the new £9000 fee level through parliament in November the coalition got its way, though not without the significant casualties of Nick Clegg’s reputation and, if the recent local elections were anything to go by, Liberal Democrat electability.

Raising fees, however, was only ever a small part of the government’s vision for higher education. The true centrepiece has always been the introduction of a market and the unleashing of student consumerism as a force for reform. As university after university declared its intention to charge the full £9000 this Spring and no market in fees emerged, it became clear that the forthcoming White Paper would have to form the focal point for the government’s next attack.

Now, just as the White Paper is imminent and the war for the future of British higher education looks set to re-ignite, the academics have entered the fray. Dismayed by Willetts’ “off-quota places” gaffes of the last few weeks which hinted at the likely effects of a fully-fledged market – back-door entry for the rich and last-minute bargain deals for the poor – over 170 Oxford dons signed a motion of no confidence which now forms the centrepiece of next week’s Congregation debate.

Such an intervention by the very professors who taught Willetts at Christ Church College 20 years ago makes the political battlefield look very different. Whereas the coalition and the media could play up the image of immature student rabbles causing trouble for the sake of it, nobody can argue that Oxford academics don’t have the necessary expertise to critique the government’s market agenda.

If motions of no confidence get taken up at other universities around the country, Willetts could find it almost impossible to withstand a wave of dissatisfaction from the very professionals his reforms are set to impact. The signs are already ominous – in Cambridge a motion has been submitted to the Governing Regent House, signed by 130.

The truly terrifying thing for the government is that we’ve seen this scenario play out already with the NHS. There, votes of no confidence by nurses and doctors unions have marginalised the Health minister Andrew Lansley and forced the government into an embarrassing ‘listening exercise’.

Such opposition has also created the political space for wounded Liberal Democrat leaders to try to rebuild their image by making more demands of the reform process. Should a no confidence movement take off in universities it could be fascinating to see whether Vince Cable, the Business secretary, has any plans of his own to appease the raging dons and restore his battered credibility.

The last time Oxford’s ‘parliament of Dons’ entered the political battlefield the year was 1985. Against a strikingly similar backdrop of huge cuts to education budgets and government interference in research, Congregation refused to award Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree.

Should the academics rediscover that spirit of defiance next Tuesday, the coalition may find that though they survived the battle for higher fees, the war for UK universities has only just begun.

If you want to find out more about the ‘No Confidence’ campaign and how you can get involved visit

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