Leader: Same ideals unite the high and low

June 4, 2004

No one will be surprised to learn that there are big differences between Oxford and Wolverhampton universities. Not only are they at opposite ends of the league tables, but one has the highest proportion of working-class students in England, the other the lowest; and one has 100 times the research income of the other. There are no prizes for guessing which is which, but do the two universities have so little in common that a single system of higher education is a fiction?

The question will loom large as the general election nears, with the two main parties adopting contrasting policies on universities. But even in the next few weeks, when the Higher Education Bill becomes an act, the meaning of institutional diversity will again become an issue as apparently forgotten aspects of last year's White Paper reappear on ministers' radar.

Contentious proposals such as the establishment of knowledge exchanges and centres of teaching excellence will be subjects of debate once more. Above all, the government's expansion target will come under scrutiny, as will its potentially conflicting goals of nurturing internationally competitive research while widening participation at undergraduate level. Cue a rerun of arguments about the purpose of higher education and the merits of further concentration of research.

That is where the Oxford-Wolverhampton comparison comes in. The same exercise could be undertaken with any number of former polytechnics and Russell Group universities - Wolverhampton was chosen partly because it is not and never has been too close to the foot of the league tables. But contrasting priorities and the gulf in resources at the disposal of the two institutions mean that the student experience could hardly be more different. To some, that is diversity in action, to others, a con trick on students and employers.

Those who study at Wolverhampton do not expect it to be like Oxford; many would not have applied if it were. The same applies to those who reach the dreaming spires. A mass higher education system should be able to accommodate both, but if a degree is to be in any way comparable, the contrast in student experience cannot be too extreme. New-university undergraduates do not demand weekly personal tutorials, but they have a right to reasonably sized teaching groups and to facilities of a standard that Wolverhampton is providing.

Equally, Wolverhampton will never match Oxford for research, and it knows it must play to its strengths in teaching and interaction with the local economy. But ministers would be short-sighted to rein in ambition of the sort that produced a step change in grades at the last research assessment exercise. The two types of institution serve different markets and operate on different planes, but they have common ideals. The challenge for the Government will be to maintain that relationship as the higher education market develops.

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