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The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) is a new coalition recently formed in the United Kingdom (UK). Its primary aim is, in short, to fight against a series of recent government reforms that lead, the council argues, to the erosion of academic values and the commercialisation of British universities. While the UK higher education sector already enjoyed the presence of several bodies representing the interests of various academic groups, such as The Russell Group, Universities UK, Million+, The 1994 Group, and Universities Alliance, to name just a few, the CDBU is unique on the British higher education landscape at least in two respects.
First of all, its founders, 65 in total, are all high-profile British intellectuals – and not just academics, but also other public figures and politicians. Founding members include Sir Keith Thomas (former president of the British Academy), Sir Peter Scott (professor of higher education at the Institute of Education), Dame Antonia Byatt (novelist), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Lord Rees of Ludlow (cosmologist and former head of the Royal Society), former science minister Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, 16 peers from the House of Lords plus a number of renowned figures from outside academia, including the broadcaster Lord Bragg of Wigton and Alan Bennett (playwright, screenwriter, actor and author).
Second, the CDBU is unique because of its mission, that of “advanc[ing] university education for the public benefit”, which is summarised in the council’s Statement of Aims. The founding members of the body particularly criticise the increase of tuition fees (and namely the 2010 Browne Review that led to it – see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, November 2010), the growing treatment of students as “customers” and “cash cows” and that of universities as “businesses”, and the introduction of the “impact agenda” within research, i.e. the expectation that research results should primarily serve the market and bring immediate economic benefits. The council also criticised the growing influence of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) over decisions that affect the universities.
While there is agreement amongst the founders about the challenges faced by the British higher education sector, the members are now to also search for common solutions. The CDBU will focus in its first months of existence on fund-raising and membership expansion, and is expected to function as a lobbying group. The Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, in an article in The Telegraph, saluted the creation of the council, underlining that it would not be sensible of him “to oppose any group designed to stimulate such debate about our universities”.