Leader: 2002: the dream is fine but what of the means?

January 4, 2002

This could be a momentous year for universities and colleges. Expansion is back, and there is real enthusiasm both for sustaining universities' research and for at last cracking the grip of the privileged on university education and the life chances it brings. There are four government reviews that between them should set the framework for this great enterprise. One, the review of 14 to 19 education, is to be published shortly. Its recommendations, of which there are already glimpses, will feed into the second, the strategic review of further and higher education.

It is possible that what will emerge from these two will be pressure for a tiered system - whether formally defined or not - with at one end research still more heavily concentrated in a few universities, and at the other end something approaching an automatic right of entry, American-style, to foundation degrees for those completing practical courses from 14 to 19. How these models might mesh in the middle, and whether it can be done satisfactorily without recreating invidious hierarchies, will be the challenge. It might be met along lines suggested in Tim Blackman's letter opposite. It might be possible to build collaborations that can accommodate diversity as some vice-chancellors hope. Success will depend largely on how ingenious and brave the funding councils are as they develop new arrangements to encourage both participation and excellence.

But clever schemes alone will not be enough. The outcome will depend crucially on the other two reviews: little and large. The review of student support and contributions, key to enabling poorer students to take advantage of new opportunities, seems stalled as option after option is explored and no politically acceptable cost-neutral solution is found. There is rightly reluctance to make recommendations that would take a larger share of a fixed higher education budget, already overstretched by justified demands for research funding and increased premiums for disadvantaged students. So all depends on the big one, the comprehensive spending review due out in July. If it finds the means to realise the dream, 2002 will mark the beginning of a hugely creative phase as higher education moves to an open system accessible to all. If it does not, Britain's universities could yet suffer the fate of so many university systems in western Europe, which are only now beginning to tackle the damage caused by decades of underfunded open-access policies.

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