Vice-chancellors still feel the need to justify so-called Mickey Mouse degrees while funding council officials cast a (slightly) critical eye over initiatives to widen participation in higher education.
In a single week, two of the pressures on 21st-century universities are laid bare. Two days of discussion at Cumberland Lodge last week on the consumer ethos in higher education added several others to the list: employers' demands for more rounded graduates and students' insistence on better value for money in an era of high fees, to name but two. The conference, part sponsored by The Times Higher, took place under Chatham House rules, protecting the anonymity of the participants. But there was a high degree of consensus on the difficulties that universities face in meeting such disparate challenges simultaneously. Take employers, for example, who complain that mass higher education still is not producing enough graduates of the right quality. Large firms, it was said, want generalists with analytical talents, while smaller enterprises tend to seek specific skills - sometimes of the "Mickey Mouse" variety. And neither wants to pay the full cost of research required by ministers. Indeed, many are likely to take their business abroad if deals cannot be struck.
Catering to the needs of their various "consumers" requires prescience of a high order on the part of universities. What are they to make of the turbulence in the National Health Service, for instance? Rapid growth in nursing and other health subjects has had to be accommodated, but is then brought to a juddering halt by mismanaged budgets and changes of policy, despite continuing strong demand from students. In another area, political and public opinion calls for perseverance with a full range of science courses, even if they are undersubscribed and underfunded. In yet another, universities must widen participation at a time when they already attract the vast majority of qualified candidates.
The premise of the conference was that top-up fees and broader market pressures might alter the character of English universities, threatening some of the core values of independent inquiry even as they offer an opportunity for limited renewal. But while a clamour for improved facilities and increased teaching time is predictable, the market has not so far had the direct impact on applications that many had predicted. More students may live at home, but there is little other evidence (beyond Leeds Metropolitan University's £2,000 fees) of the new regime influencing choices of institution. Nor does the wealth of published information on everything from student satisfaction to the price of beer appear to alter attitudes substantially. Although these are early days, it is fair to assume that students will continue to choose a "brand" that they think will appeal to employers.
Vice-chancellors at Cumberland Lodge doubted that top-up fees would be overwhelmingly significant as a driver of change, partly because of the sums involved and the uncertainties of government funding, but also because they had been living with the market for some years. Other challenges were already on the horizon, from private institutions to online provision and foreign competition. But the demands on academics seem certain to increase in line with the often conflicting pressures on their employers. Growth in student numbers can be expected to resume as the economy's need for more graduates becomes apparent, but it will be surprising if staffing levels keep pace. Those students who take the new vocational diplomas are likely to arrive with different skills and expectations to those who follow the traditional A-level route. And the requirement for academics to be multi-skilled can only become more pronounced. Universities will no doubt adapt and satisfy the many demands for their services, but it will not be an easy ride for those who work in them.