All too few opportunities exist for academics and those concerned with universities or intellectual life more generally to come together for an extended discussion. Usually, such debates are squeezed into a broader conference agenda where political questions dominate and vested interests militate against a frank exchange of views. Institutional representatives, in particular, are naturally defensive about standards. A conference organised by the Institute of Ideas in London last weekend was a welcome exception, but the picture that emerged of modern higher education was a depressing one.
A self-selecting audience of 300 people, not all of whom were academics, should not be taken as the legitimate voice of higher education, but some of the messages were unmistakable. The most predictable of these was resentment at outside agencies that intervene in the teaching process. In many ways more worrying, however, were concerns about the paucity of academic ambition among students and the dumbing down of courses to keep up pass rates. From moves to abandon the essay in favour of shorter, less challenging forms of writing, to a wholesale scaling down of reading lists, the shared experience was of reducing degree study to the perceived level of a new market. The claims chimed with the results of The THES 's poll of academics, published last month, in which almost six out of ten said courses were being dumbed down in response to easier entry, and three-quarters had been forced to adapt their teaching styles. A similar proportion believed students were less well prepared than in the past.
For many of last weekend's frustrated defenders of traditional academic standards, the changes were unnecessary and amounted to a "con-trick" on those who are being urged to go on to higher education. Even allowing for the shortcomings of secondary education, their students were capable of more. Some may have had a rosy view of their students' abilities, but the implications for the government's agenda of widening participation in higher education are serious. Ministers have pinned at least some of their hopes on student "customers" demanding a better education,especially when they are paying £3,000 a year. If, instead, universities are going to pander to demands for an easy life, the argument for 50 per cent participation becomes far more difficult to sustain.