Leader: Soup-to-nuts multiversity is the right recipe

April 19, 2002

Diversity is the new holy grail of higher education policy; so easy to extol, so hard to achieve. Two models are emerging: diversity between institutions and diversity within institutions. Diversity between institutions is seemingly the easier option: give institutions lots of money to do different things. But planned diversity is politically impractical. As Roger King says, a differentiated system was abandoned in 1992 when polytechnics were rewarded for expanding numbers and cutting unit costs with university titles and the full range of degree-awarding powers. What was given cannot be taken away. Even if (improbably) a large amount of extra cash were suddenly available, for example for widening participation and community links, no institution would agree to abandon research or seek to recruit only poorly qualified students. Nor would or should top-rated universities give up technology transfer and the pursuit of poor students, whatever funding chiefs may say.

Hence the increasing discussion of a messier model of diversity within merged or federated (and certainly large) institutions or groups of institutions providing seamless post-compulsory education - soup-to-nuts multiversities organised on a regional basis. Negotiating such arrangements is difficult, but with patience and skill it can be done.

The government could help more, not by further prescription but by strengthening regional government so that it can become an alternative funding source to counter the pull towards national homogeneity. Unions might be less obstructive. New management structures, as Will Light suggests, might be explored. What is for sure is that present funding arrangements and performance indicators (with resulting league tables) heavily disadvantage those such as Luton that do things differently. In its strategic review the English funding council will be trying to come up with changes that make diversity a reality. But the toughness of the task suggests that central planning itself may be the problem.

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