Leader: Academe's great debate must address values

May 16, 2003

Who would have thought that a year-long debate on the future of higher education had culminated in a white paper less than four months ago? Parliament managed to debate the entire subject without the government questioning whether some areas of study were more deserving of support than others, or the opposition proposing that tens of thousands of degree places should be slashed. Yet both have happened since, and mass higher education, as it has developed over the past decade, is having to justify its existence.

That is no bad thing in itself, leaving aside the timing. Universities and colleges receive billions of pounds of taxpayers' money, and they must be able to convince the public that it is well spent. At the end of January, they seemed not only to have made that case, but to have demonstrated the need for urgent and sustained increases. Now, however, the debate has returned to first principles in a way that could threaten the future of some disciplines or institutions, depending on which party is in power.

Education secretary Charles Clarke, albeit not in the way he would have wished, has initiated a public debate on the purpose of a university that has touched some raw nerves. However enthusiastic he may be about history, his remarks about "medieval seekers after the truth" have been taken to mean that learning for learning's sake should be a minor appendage to a university's role as an engine of the knowledge economy. So far, Mr Clarke has declined to expand on the views he expressed at University College Worcester, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is trying to have it both ways in claiming to defend pure academic study while promoting an approach that would devalue it.

The white paper was explicit about the purpose of higher education.

Although it stressed the role of universities in meeting the needs of the economy, it acknowledged the need to "enable all suitably qualified individuals to develop their potential both intellectually and personally, and to provide the necessary storehouse of expertise in science and technology, and the arts and humanities which defines our civilisation and culture". If that balance has changed, we should be told why.

Assuming that the government can get its higher education bill through Parliament, students will soon decide the fate of university departments.

If they fear that medieval history will be useless to them, they will vote with their fees and hasten its demise, whatever Mr Clarke may think. But that will not be the case if this week's Conservative proposals are the election-winner that many commentators believe them to be.

The unwanted power to close "Mickey Mouse" courses will lie with the funding councils. No doubt the bureaucrats will be guided by the popularity of courses, but there is obvious irony in Labour relying on the market while the Tories go for micro-management.

The Conservative plans cannot fail to be popular with those who would be spared £9,000 in fees, but the short-term effect on the higher education system would be disastrous and the long-term impact on the economy highly questionable. There is a case to be made for reducing the 50 per cent participation target and for closing courses with high dropout rates and poor employment records, but it does not add up to freezing the higher education system in an even more impoverished state. Those universities and colleges that survived would struggle to cater adequately for an even more middle-class intake. In a week of confused messages, perhaps Mr Clarke's plea for a higher education version of the James Callaghan's "great debate" on schools is timely after all. But only if it addresses real values rather than descending into electioneering.

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