Oxford University delivers stinging verdict on higher education reforms

Legislative body reaches near-unanimous vote of no confidence in policies of universities minister, David Willetts

Oxford University has formally declared it has "no confidence" in the policies of the universities minister, David Willetts, in the first sign of a concerted academic backlash against the government's higher education reforms.

Lecturers passed a motion opposing the coalition's policies by 283 votes to five at a meeting of the congregation, Oxford's legislative body. The university is the first to take a public stand against the raising of tuition fees and slashing of the teaching grant, but the rebellion is spreading. Cambridge is expected to announce a date for a "no confidence" vote on Monday, while a petition against the government is gathering force at Warwick University.

It is the first time a vote of no confidence in a minister has been passed by an English university, and follows a no- confidence vote by the Royal College of Nursing in the health secretary Andrew Lansley's handling of NHS reforms. The message of "no confidence" will be transmitted to the government by Oxford University's council, its governing body.

Robert Gildea, the Oxford historian who proposed the motion, described the coalition's reforms as "reckless, incoherent and incompetent". He warned that proposals to introduce "off-quota" student places, funded privately rather than through state-backed loans, and AC Grayling's plan for a new private university heralded the arrival of a "two-track" admissions system.

In a two and a half hour debate, he told fellow academics: "It's a red carpet for the rich and even more competition for everyone else. We will be back to Brideshead."

The debate had added resonance on the day a committee of MPs published a report warning that student numbers might have to be cut to meet the soaring cost of student loans, after ministers underestimated how many universities would charge the maximum £9,000 fee. Figures compiled by the Guardian show that 105 universities have declared their fee for next year, with an average of £8,765.

Karma Nabulsi, a lecturer in international relations who seconded the motion, urged the academics not to consider the motion as a negative statement, "but as an affirmation of who we are and the traditions we wish to preserve".

She said: "Oxford is committed above all to the pursuit of academic excellence in all its forms, a defence of academic disciplines without regard for market values, and the idea of education as a comprehensive, publicly-funded activity accessible to the widest number of young people."

One of the few academics to lend support to the government was Susan Cooper, a physicist and fellow of St Catherine's college, who argued that the market in tuition fees needed a few years to develop. She said: "The difference between [an average tuition fee of] £7,500 and £9,000 is not a financial disaster on the scale of the banking crisis. Having embarked on the experiment, I'd like to see it through."

After the vote, which was greeted with cheers from academics gathered in the university's Sheldonian Theatre, Gildea said he hoped it would have a "rousing effect" on other universities and put pressure on the government to think again.

He said: "This government comes across as ideologically-driven, but actually it is weak and divided. They are weaker than they think they are and we are more powerful than we think we are. After all, they have to win the next election. If they restored the direct funding [for teaching arts and the humanities] that existed before the cuts, which would keep students fees where they were, about £3,000 a year, that would just solve a whole raft of problems."

David Barclay, president of the students' union,, who addressed the lecturers on behalf of students, said after the vote: "Whatever the pressure from the outside world, we are an institution living by our values. We are the first university to take public leadership in opposition to the government."

The government defended the new fees regime and the decision to cut direct state funding for teaching, saying the reforms "put students in the driving seat".

Acknowledging the public snub, a spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "Universities have always been bastions of free speech and debate.

"However, our student and university finance reforms are fairer than the present system and affordable for the nation."Gareth Thomas, Labour's universities spokesman, said: "This is a devastating and unprecedented vote, with Oxford academics confirming what a series of independent experts and the Public Accounts Committee have already made clear; that 80% cuts, trebling tuition fees and cuts to research facilities are unfair, unnecessary and unsustainable.

"David Cameron and George Osborne should not be surprised by this vote. It is their economic policy and the demand for cuts in higher education, far higher than in any other area of the public sector, which has caused this debacle."


Jeevan Vasagar, education editor

The GuardianTramp

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