Leader: Eight years on, improvement but blurred vision

February 18, 2005

The fifth anniversary of David Blunkett's Greenwich speech, which set out the Government's vision for higher education, and the release of papers giving some of the background to its 50 per cent participation target (pages 2-3) provide a convenient moment to assess the impact of eight years of Labour stewardship. Tony Blair will be remembered more for the about turn on top-up fees (hinted at by Mr Blunkett at Greenwich). But if his party is to be judged in May on its record thus far, this was when the agenda was set. It may speak volumes about the low priority given to higher education in Labour's first term that it took three years to produce a blueprint, but the principles remain largely unchanged.

The two big announcements in Mr Blunkett's speech launched the UK e-University and foundation degrees - one an expensive failure and the other yet to live up to unrealistic expectations. But the theme of the speech was diversity, with a greater accent on vocational courses for some institutions, further concentration of research funding to reassure others and more interaction all round with business and industry. As landmark speeches go, it does not (and did not) inspire. But the approach was maintained through the 2003 higher education White Paper and remains the basis of government policy.

Perhaps significantly, there was no reference to the 50 per cent target announced by Mr Blair only four months previously. The papers released to The Times Higher under the Freedom of Information Act do not answer the key questions of how the target was set or why the timescale was altered, but Mr Blunkett's nervousness at the commitment shines through. His political antennae may have failed him subsequently, but he immediately sensed danger with perceived dumbing down and the risk that top universities might be lost to the state system if they feared for their research capability. Neither would be allowed to cloud the message from Greenwich.

Foundation degrees were part of Mr Blunkett's defence, as much as any radical commitment to reform higher education. It is difficult to believe that ministers and civil servants really thought the new two-year courses would tap an entirely different market from the ones that already existed. But the idea allowed them to portray the planned expansion as both cheaper and more focused than previous growth. Mr Blunkett said higher education in the new century would "look very different from the system that evolved in the second half of the 20th century" and he speculated that there might be three tiers of research universities, regional universities and community colleges. Eventually, perhaps there will but, five years on, there is little sign of it.

Even without hindsight, there were many who questioned the wisdom of the two Greenwich initiatives - and more who had already opposed the 50 per cent target. But it is against the promise of a "very different" system for the 21st century that Labour's blueprint now looks deficient. The next research assessment exercise could force more universities towards the (ill-defined) regional role, but foundation degrees do not look like spawning a British version of community colleges, or new polytechnics. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is not exaggerating when it describes the 94 per cent increase in applications for foundation degrees as remarkable (page 4), but 18,000 applications at a time of continuing decline in demand for higher national diplomas hardly suggest a transformation of the system in the foreseeable future. Eight years of Labour have seen an end to the consistent reduction in funding levels imposed by the Conservatives, which should not be forgotten. But the muddled principles of Greenwich and the 50 per cent target have produced, if not more of the same, certainly something less than a radical new departure for higher education.

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