Leader: Ramsden report is call for action

September 7, 2001

Next week the leaders of Britain's universities gather for their annual residential meeting. They have a new president, Roderick Floud, a new government with new ministers, and (for the English majority) a new head of the Higher Education Funding Council.

Background research provided by the secretariat to inform vice-chancellors' decisions has grown more comprehensive and thorough over the years. Brian Ramsden's massive study is the latest contribution. Vice-chancellors are going to find themselves deprived of that time-honoured excuse for inaction: "We need more research."

But having a clear view may not make decisions easier. Universities UK is a trade association whose members' interests do not always coincide. Vice-chancellors may agree the need, as Sir David Watson, chairman of the long-term strategy group, put it, "to take the initiative in raising awareness and lobbying for positive investment". They will have more trouble agreeing to take action.

Two conclusions emerge from the Ramsden report. One is that something must be done about the education of 14 to 19-year-olds if participation in higher education is to widen. The other is that higher education needs rationalising.

The first is largely outside the scope of universities. The best they can do is press the government to be braver about terminal secondary examinations than this week's white paper, Schools Achieving Success, implies. With 50 per cent participation targets, and 350,000 full-time undergraduate places on offer each year, clinging to a school-leaving examination system that produces only about 200,000 qualified recruits is absurd. It results in a third of all students enrolling in higher education with unconventional academic backgrounds, and higher education being forced into providing remedial education to some of them that it can ill afford.

Rationalisation should, by contrast, be high on vice-chancellors' "to do" list. Former president Sir Howard Newby will be moving to the English funding council with the report under his arm. Beefed-up incentives to collaboration and merger can be expected. Delivering will not be easy. De Montfort and Lincoln and Humberside seem to be rationalising without aggravation but the letter from Professor Floud's London Guildhall neatly demonstrates how easily resistance can be mobilised. No wonder vice-chancellors prefer lobbying to acting themselves. No wonder central control has tightened.

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