More unity, less inaction needed from UK higher education

United Kingdom higher education responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflect the inability of the community to respond collectively, promptly or effectively to issues of importance. Umbrella groups and individual institutions stalled and prevaricated as they lagged behind other countries in responding to demands for concerted action.

It may have been a failure of planning, but other recent sector-wide issues suggest it may be a systemic point of failure in a sector where self-regulation and self-interest encourage inaction and obfuscation.

Fail to plan, plan to fail

The invasion started on 24 February, but the first statement by Universities UK was not until 28 February, which was an age given the potential to plan ahead and consider how to respond.

Even slower was the Russell Group, which did not manage a public response until 7 March, after the media had featured their lack of even the most basic of statements. Two weeks after the invasion there was still no statement on the Russell Group website.

By contrast, on the day after the invasion, the German Ministry of Education and Research said: “All current and planned activities with Russia are being frozen and subjected to critical review. There will be no new activities until further notice.”

By 4 March, the European Union had “decided to halt cooperation with Russian entities in research, science and innovation”, which included halting payments under existing contracts as well as making no new agreements. The Netherlands, Slovenia, Denmark and Lithuania had all reached the same position.

Universities UK was obliged to update its position when the Russian Union of Rectors (RUR) issued a statement on 4 March supporting “the Russian army and President Vladimir Putin’s decision to take military action in Ukraine”.

The response was to suspend a memorandum of understanding between Universities UK and the RUR, which coincided with the decision of the European University Association (of which Universities UK is a member) to suspend membership of 12 Russian university signatories. The sense of being bounced into defensive action rather than anticipating and leading continued to prevail.

Waiting is the hardest part

Perhaps UK higher education took its slow-walk lead from the glacial response of elements of the UK government.

On 27 February George Freeman MP, parliamentary under-secretary of state for science, research and innovation, tweeted that he had instigated a “rapid … review of all Russian beneficiaries (whether academic collaborators, companies or directors) of UK science, research, technology and innovation funding”.

By 7 March UK Research and Innovation was “pausing all payments to grants with potential Russian partners”, but saying, “we await further [British] government advice”.

More than two weeks later neither Freeman, UK Research and Innovation, nor the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy had deigned to update their websites on the progress of the “rapid” review or its consequences.

Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi appears to have been sidelined from this issue, but recently promised to “crack down hard” on academics referred to by party colleague Robert Halfon MP as “useful idiots” for Putin. This looks like pandering to media attention rather than taking meaningful decisions about whether UK university links with Russian institutions are appropriate.

This may be another factor behind the delays by some UK universities in taking decisive action. Professor Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, a member of the Russell Group, told The Guardian on 4 March that “if the government were to tell his university to cut ties with Russia, it would do so because of the ‘bigger things at stake’.”

Professor Steve West, the president of the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said: “I think we have to expect science sanctions … what is happening is a challenge on democracy and the safety and stability of the free world.”

At face value we appear to have institutions that are proud to promote their status as self-governing and autonomous, delaying taking decisive action until the government tells them what to do. Even when they acknowledge the threat to “the safety and stability of the free world” and the “bigger things at stake”, they seem unable to make a decision.

Governments in other countries may have recognised the capacity of universities to prevaricate and been wise to simply take the decision out of their hands.

At the individual university level, a number of institutions have demonstrated it is entirely possible to act promptly and with vigour. On 28 February the University of Warwick was reviewing all Russian links with a view to “terminating contracts where possible”. As early as 4 March the universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews and Dundee confirmed they had already cut ties with Russia and Edinburgh University was reviewing its investment stake in Sberbank.

By contrast, some universities have made no public statement, even of support for Ukraine, or have relied on the backstop position provided by Universities UK.

Keele University says: “We are working closely with other institutions in the UK higher education sector to coordinate our response.” This implies a joined-up response that is not evident in reality and exposes the tensions inherent in the sector.

A pattern of behaviour

For those who think this failure to unify is only a feature of a crisis, it is worth considering two other recent and important issues.

On 16 January 2022, six universities signed a pledge agreeing that victims of sexual harassment in universities should no longer be silenced by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). It was wholeheartedly supported by Higher Education Minister Michelle Donelan, the National Union of Students and Universities UK, who claim to be the “collective voice” of 140 universities.

By 16 March, two months later, only 42 universities had signed the pledge which is held on the Can’t Buy My Silence website. It is difficult to think of anything simpler than committing to collective action on an issue of this type. Perhaps the reasons lie in the self-interest of a sector where a BBC News investigation in 2020 found nearly a third of universities had used NDAs for student grievances in a four-year period.

Back in 2020 there was pressure to stop the use of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, with the higher education minister, the Office for Students and the National Union of Students agreeing they put students under undue pressure.

The practice was banned by the Office for Students from July 2020 to September 2021 and, following a Universities UK review, a new Fair Admissions Code of Practice was launched in March 2022. Despite the fanfare, the code is not compulsory and at the present time there is no indication on the websites of either Universities UK or co-developers GuildHE of who has signed up.

As recently as February 2022, the higher education minister had written to the University of Portsmouth, which continues to defend the use of such offers.

It is difficult to see that a code of conduct demonstrating the “higher education sector’s commitment to fair and transparent admissions practices” should be a matter of debate or contention. However, some in the sector stand by their option to secure competitive or other advantages by resisting uniform regulation or action in the interests of students.

Suspending links with universities significantly controlled by the Russian government, eradicating NDAs that silence victims of sexual harassment, and not agreeing to stop using conditional unconditional offers are obviously quite different examples. However, it is difficult to resist the argument that, even under situations where the free world’s “safety and stability” is at stake, the UK higher education sector needs to be told what to do.

It would seem better if they worked out how to act as a collective before they find patience wearing thin and face a more direct approach to their decision-making.

Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.