Universities will be forced to pander to the demands of “snowflake” students if controversial changes to the ranking system are approved, education leaders have warned.
The Government faces a cross-party revolt in the Lords this week over proposed reforms to higher education, which include placing student satisfaction at the heart of a new ranking system.
It is feared that this will lead to a “fantastically dangerous” culture where authorities will give in to student demands, however unreasonable they may be.
“Safe space” and “no platform” movements have swept across campuses including a campaign to ban Germaine Greer from giving a speech over her “offensive” comments.
Baroness Wolf, a professor at King’s College London (KCL), warned: “Universities are increasingly nervous about doing anything that will create overt dissatisfaction among students because they are being told that student satisfaction is key.
“It has had a real effect on the willingness of universities to stand up to student demands which in the past have been removing statues, safe spaces and no-platforming. This whole movement is a direct threat to academic standards and the ability of universities to stand up for freedom of speech.”
She added: “The student satisfaction measure is fantastically dangerous. The way to make students happy is not asking them to do any work and giving them a high grade.
“This will reduce standards and undermine quality. I just think this is totally mad, and destructive of everything universities stand for.”
Professor Julia Black, interim director at London School of Economics, Baroness Wolf, Baroness Deech, a former senior proctor at Oxford University, and Gill Evans, an emeritus professor at Cambridge University told The Telegraph of their concerns.
The Higher Education and Research Bill, championed by Universities Minister Jo Johnson, will reach committee stage in the Lords on Monday, where is expected to be subject to a barrage of criticism.
Sir Keith Burnett, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield told The Sunday Telegraph: “It is clear that members of the House of Lords are deeply concerned about the long term future and sustainability of universities, and this is true across parties.”
The bill outlines the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), where universities will be awarded gold, silver or bronze medals on the basis of a range of factors including student satisfaction, teaching excellence and preparation for the world of work. Universities are currently ranked based on quality of research output.
Gill Evans, emeritus professor of Medieval Theology at Cambridge University, said the new criterion will lead to an attitude among university authorities of “bother the kids but we had better give in as we stand to suffer more for fighting it out”. It will lead to a feeling of “if in doubt, give in”, she added.
Baroness Deech, a cross-bench peer who formerly held the highest office dealing with student complaints, has tabled two amendments to the bill dealing with free speech, which she said are “integral to academic freedom”.
“One is requiring universities to protect freedom of speech within the law, so that lecturers on unpopular subjects are not shut down, so that “safe space” and “trigger warnings” do not impede scholarship,” she told The Telegraph.
“The other amendment requires universities to take steps to stop illegal speech, for example invited extremist speakers calling for discrimination and worse against gays, women and Jews, or inciting terrorist activity.” She said that while provisions for both already exist in the law, they are “widely flouted”.
Professor Julia Black said that the National Student Survey, the basis on which the student satisfaction will be measured, should be treated with caution.
“You should always engage with students, but their experiences change the whole time,” she said. “Universities do have to challenge students and students may find that to be an uncomfortable process. It is beholden on universities to make sure students feel supported through that challenge.”
Vice chancellors have been accused by senior academics of being “needlessly spineless” in their opposition to the bill. In order to raise tuition fees in line with inflation and recruit international students, they must sign up to the proposed teaching excellence framework (TEF).
One Vice Chancellor told the Sunday Telegraph that in terms of opposing the bill, this “leaves universities between a rock and a hard place”.
A senior academic said: “They are terrified at the idea that they might lose fees. They did not need to be so needlessly spineless. ”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want more young people to have the opportunity to access a high-quality university education, and the measures proposed in the Higher Education and Research Bill are critical to making this possible.
“The new Teaching Excellence Framework will help raise the quality of teaching and almost all English universities, including those in the Russell Group [24 leading UK universities], have confirmed that they intend to take part in the second year.”