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Dons damn David Willetts

177 Oxford academics have signed a motion “to communicate to the Government that the University of Oxford has no confidence in the policies of the Minister for Higher Education”. They join students in calling for the University to formally “express dissatisfaction” with government higher education policy.

The motion, submitted on Monday morning, will be debated in Congregation (Oxford’s ‘parliament of dons’ and the legislative body of the University) for amendments in 6th week and then 8th week for the resolution itself.

Colleges have been seeking mandates to lobby Congregation members to support the resolution, following the lead of Andrew Hood, New College JCR President, who called for the vote of no confidence in a speech to the Congregation last week.

Hood commented, “If the public see that the professionals concerned are not behind the Government’s plans they may be forced to reconsider”.

On Sunday evening, St John’s JCR unanimously passed a motion of “No Confidence in the Minister of Higher Education”.

David Messling, John’s JCR President said, “It’s really exciting that this resolution is coming from the academics, making it harder to pass off as just a student stunt.”

In an email sent out to St Catz students, JCR president Aidan Clifford asked students to “plead with your tutors to stand with us against this Government’s Higher Education policies, and get them to sign up!”

Bernard Sufrin, of the Oxford University Campaign for Higher Education (OUCHE!), which includes members of Congregation, commented, “It would be irresponsible of the sovereign body of Oxford – one of only two University sovereign bodies that can speak along the lines of this motion – to keep quiet about the very damaging consequences of the proposed changes to the HE funding arrangements.

“People who signed the motion have said that last week’s on-again, off-again policy initiatives decreased their – already meager – confidence in the HE policies of the Minister to vanishing point.

“When policy is made and then unmade within a day, there is a case for saying that those responsible for the policy-making are losing their grip. When this happens twice in three days, people can be forgiven for thinking that the grip has been lost completely”.

The level of support for the motion being put to Congregation has been described by OUCHE! members as “huge” and “unprecedented”, with the 177 signatures being collected in 3 days, 2 of which were at the weekend.

Those who met and discussed it were reportedly “unanimous about its wording”, “from a very wide range of academic disciplines” and “of all political persuasions”.

An OUSU press release stated that such a motion “is likely to be seen as following in the footsteps of the recent Nurses’ vote of no confidence in Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, which has dented the Government’s plans for a radical overhaul of the NHS”.

OUSU VP for Access and Academic Affairs, Alex Bulfin said, “I think for Oxford to step to the front of the debate on the future of higher education in this manner can only be a positive move. No matter your political stance, few can argue that the Government’s policy on higher education is not confused and contradictory, at best”.

Jack Andrews, a Mansfield first-year, commented that, “In the past I’ve always had to defend the Conservative’s actions to those around me”, yet the past “few weeks of terrible policy suggestions and embarrassing backtracking [show that] Willetts isn’t the right man (scapegoat or not) to lead Universities in the future”.

Co-chair of Oxford University Liberal Democrats, James King, placed much of the blame over “badly mishandled” universities policy on Mr Willetts, saying, “I don’t think that there are many Liberal Democrats who would be unhappy if he left the government. The fact that Oxford – one of the universities who might theoretically have gained most from reforms to funding – could well call for his head is frankly damning.”

However, King said, “We do not think that either this motion alone or other similar ones from other universities will affect the future of the Coalition, which the majority of Liberal Democrats continue to support.”

Lincoln Hill, Chair of Oxford University Labour Club, observed, “Even if such a motion were passed by other universities, only the Government’s public image, not their policy, would change.

“They are operating from Thatcher’s rulebook and have made up their minds to persevere through present unpopularity on all fronts until Mr. Osborne can hand out tax cuts”.

However, responses from various colleges show that the momentum behind the motion is not entirely widespread.

Students at Pembroke and St Hugh’s were not aware of the motion at all, while Balliol’s JCR president Stephen Dempsey told Cherwell that they were deliberately not canvassing opinion as the nature of topic is “very diversified” and so “do not feel comfortable in support or dissent”.

Nick Hyett, a second year PPEist at Christ Church, called the motion “a slightly extreme response”.

He added that there were, “some u-turns yes, but this surely is evidence that the government is listening and responding… [the] whole universities policy is not ridiculous – tutition fees are more or less fair”.

When Cherwell contacted Willetts a department spokesperson commented, “Under our policy, there are no upfront fees and graduates don’t make any repayments until they are in well-paid employment.

“There is a more generous maintenance package than now, as well as the National Scholarship Programme targeting prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Oxford University has declined to comment at this stage.

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