If the government set out to create a set of proposals that would divide the academic community, it could hardly improve on yesterday’s higher education white paper. For every researcher who approves of greater selectivity, there will be three who decry the stifling of ambition it brings with it. For every vice-chancellor who breathes a sigh of relief at the guarantee of an independent source of income, there will be two who cannot stomach the idea of top-up fees. Even the restoration of student grants is at a level that will not compensate for the extra costs to be met by those from the poorest homes at leading universities.
Yet only the most blinkered critic will fail to find any good in the white paper. The reason that it was more than a year in gestation was not simply indecision: the state into which British higher education has been allowed to decline does not lend itself to easy remedies. The only consensus is for a huge injection of public money, which is not on offer from this or any other government. The package that has emerged from the fog of Brown-Blair confrontation is a coherent attempt to refashion higher education along more efficient, managerial lines. The label of “modernisation” cannot be far away. But does it conform to Newman’s Idea of a University , or will it spell the beginning of the end of public higher education as it has evolved over the past 100 years?
Taken literally, public higher education is not at risk for the foreseeable future. Top-up fees have been pitched at the lowest possible rate, with increases ruled out for five years and public funding guaranteed at a level that ensures that the state will remain the principal source of income for most universities. However, the system it supports will be quite different from the one that attracts academics and students from all over the world. Oxford and Cambridge may have slipped behind some of their wealthier American rivals, but British higher education continues to hold its own in most international comparisons.
There is no greater insult in new Labour’s education lexicon than “one size fits all”. It has been used unflatteringly in relation to comprehensive schools and the secondary curriculum; now it is universities’ turn. The former polytechnics and possibly some of their older counterparts will be required to play to their strengths, which means leaving research to the top performers and restricting themselves to vocational (preferably two-year) courses. In some countries this would be considered natural, but it has not been the British way. Plenty of universities proclaim their vocational mission and have all
but moved out of pure academic subjects, but they value their poorly funded research and have no wish to corral reluctant students into foundation degrees to meet government targets. The new system will at last provide incentives to strive for excellence in teaching or knowledge transfer, but universities know that, especially overseas, their reputation is built on research success. Ministers may have turned away from creating a formal tier of teaching-only universities, but yesterday’s proposals will produce much the same thing.
Newman saw the university as a “place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge”. He would not have recognised the government’s concept of glorified further education colleges with a sideline in helping local business. There may be a managerial logic in taking this route, but such institutions will find it hard to recruit high-calibre staff or students. There are plenty of good ideas in the white paper, particularly given the starting point, but they will be put at risk if institutions are starved of ambition and rendered permanently second class.