In a mark of rebellion more shocking than anything so far attempted by education protesters, top academics from Oxford University have moved for a vote of no confidence in the education policies of Universities Minister David Willetts. Inspired by the government’s U-turn on NHS policy, the academics hope similarly to “force the government to re-think”. Events developed even further this week, when a group of top Cambridge University professors followed suit, signing a motion urging their fellow academics to join forces with their traditional rivals.

Now the ‘congregation’ of Oxford University academics will hold an extensive debate on the issue and, if the motion is carried, will declare a symbolic ‘vote of no confidence’ in Willetts and his proposed overhaul of higher education funding. It seems likely that Cambridge University will follow suit, presenting a formidable united front against the new tuition fees policy that proposes to transfer the cost of higher education from state to student in 2012.

Protesters have raised enormous concerns about the impact the new £9000 tuition fees will have on fair access to university, as rocketing prices are extremely likely to dissuade students from more disadvantaged backgrounds from applying to university at all. This is particularly pertinent as it coincides with the government’s withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance and the Aim Higher scheme, both of which existed to encourage poorer students to continue on to higher education.

The UK’s top universities have now joined the fight, and it will be very interesting to see whether they will have as strong an impact as the ‘vote of no confidence’ of doctors’ and nurses’ unions had on the proposed NHS overhaul. The academics feel they have a very strong argument, because in addition to initial concerns over the plans, several new problems and inconsistencies have arisen as the new policy has unfolded. It was discovered, for example, that the timeline of the proposals set students who chose to defer entry to university this year at a severe disadvantage, as they were forced to make uninformed decisions about their degree choices without access to vital funding and fees information.

In addition, the government’s financial plans for the scheme have been thrown into disarray and ridicule, as almost all UK Universities have chosen to set their fees at the highest level of £9000, contrary to the £7500 average on which Willetts based his calculations. Tuition fees took yet another tumble two weeks ago, when ministers desperately suggested that extra off-quota places might be created to solve the problem of over-subscription and over-pricing, only to be immediately quelled by a roar of dissent from protesters and academics alike, who claimed that this was tantamount to allowing the richest students to ‘buy their way in’ to the best universities.

Top Cambridge University English fellow Dr Jason Scott-Warren described the government’s higher education policies as “badly though-through” and “unravelling as they proceed”. He hopes that the example set by Oxford and Cambridge might influence other academics and university congregations across the UK to join the revolt, declaring that “if other academics across the country speak out against the changes, it’s possible that will force the government to rethink.”
The battle lines are drawn. We can only wait to see if he will be right…