Leader: Myth and reality in the new world

October 22, 2004

The headlines have been all about school diplomas, but this week may come to be seen as just as significant for higher education. The appointment of Sir Martin Harris as the first director of the Office for Fair Access and the launch of the Higher Education Academy show that the landscape of last year's White Paper is finally taking shape. To many academics, that is no cause for celebration but, particularly where the academy is concerned, perhaps it should be.

Sir Martin's appointment came as a relief to most universities, although it may not be what the more strident Labour backbenchers had in mind if they thought Offa was going to bring elitist admissions officers to heel. Any who still harboured such illusions were paying as little attention as their opponents when Offa's remit was watered down during the passage of the Higher Education Bill. Sir Martin will be no pushover, but he is bound to be more understanding of universities' situation than an outsider. He will expect more progress on social inclusion and, in all likelihood, he will get it. But Charles Clarke's comment that the process would be a success if Sir Martin never had to use his powers to fine universities or prevent them levying top-up fees was a broad hint that no one should expect blood on the floor.

The academy, on the other hand, may have a much greater impact than its detractors predict. The low-key approach of Paul Ramsden, the chief executive, promising straightforward, practical, research-based material will appeal to many of those who dismissed the more jargon-ridden attempts to improve teaching standards in the past. It is extraordinary that higher education has had no professional body until now. One is desperately needed not only to spread best practice but to make a reality of the frequently made but little-honoured pledges to give teaching equal status to research.

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