Remember the Dearing report? Its grander title was the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education and it was produced in 1997, the year the Labour government took office.
The document never seemed likely to be as influential as the more fundamental 1963 Robbins report, but one of its proposals was that there should be a compact between higher education and society - a fine-sounding, if vague, notion that this anthology seeks to illuminate. Some of the book is timely since the government has set a target of 50 per cent of young people participating in higher education.
The most interesting sections explore inclusivity - an important element if groups traditionally excluded from higher education are to become part of the compact - and the student perspective. There are excellent chapters on disability, adaptation to part-time study, interactive technology and the rise of the student worker. This last reveals that more than 66,000 students work for Sainsbury's, Tesco and KwikSave alone.
The problem with a collection bringing together so many different authors on a topic such as this, however, is that it may become bloodless. Acronyms can burst out of every pore, and some chapters are awash with them. The best contributions, such as Phil Cohen's chapter on cultures of learning, student identities and the process of disqualification, locate their analysis in a context and explore the intricate relationships between universities and different constituencies. The poorer ones, and there are a few, appear trivial and superficial.
Some contributors are overly concerned with ephemera. The editors should have been stricter with authors about avoiding words such as "recent" that soon date a work. One author says: "The English are anti-education." (What, all of us?). Another states: "I have to admit to having experienced some delight several years ago, when some non-functioning, inactive colleagues who put most of their energies into making life a misery for more competent female colleagues, were flushed out and publicly graded 'unsatisfactory' by inspectors!"
The predominant mood should not necessarily be ashen-faced and it is great fun to settle a few scores but such tactics make it difficult for readers to take the topic as seriously as it deserves. One chapter is liberally sprinkled with phrases such as "generic learning outcome statements" and statements such as "the thrust of outcomes-focused QA is to increase the level of specification in all aspects of academic management practice". This sort of prose should be buried deep underground for at least a generation.
Universities must establish positive relationships with their constituents and the best chapters make a valuable contribution to the debate about how that might be achieved. Pruning the trivia, the ephemera and the more desiccated chapters would have improved the chances of this book making an impact.
Ted Wragg is professor of education, University of Exeter.
A Compact for Higher Education
Editor - K. Moti Gokulsing and Cornel DaCosta
ISBN - 0 7546 1439 5
Publisher - Ashgate
Price - £44.00
Pages - 240