When higher education minister Tim Boswell spoke to the recent English funding council conference, the media predictably focused on his criticism of the council's and Committee for Vice Chancellors and Principals' failure to end trench warfare on how to bring quality audit and assessment together. Scant regard was paid to some of the more thought-provoking sections of a meaty address. For example, buried in the part on continuing vocational education was the revelation that some students in adult liberal education area feel "constructively dismissed" from their courses because of the new emphasis on accreditation.
This goes to the heart of the debate about the purpose of higher education and how it should be funded. Education is both a public and a private good. But the recent expansion of higher education has raised the question of how the investment costs should be equitably shared between the individual beneficiary and society (via taxation).
Public discussion has focused on the "problem" of funding full-time mainly degree-level study partly because this accounts for most of the Treasury Bill and it is still perceived as being the primary purpose of universities (outside of research).
Meanwhile, many institutions have been repositioning themselves in the market, offering a more extensive range of continuing education products, from part-time degrees to professional development. Few would dispute that "lifelong learning" is socially and economically desirable. The extent to which this should be publicly funded is less clear-cut. The views of the individual student, concerned about personal development and employability, are unlikely to coincide with those of the same individual in his/her capacity as taxpayer.
What priority should be given to students' aspirations and achievements. While performance measurement is still relatively crude, progress has been achieved by progressively discarding the traditional measuring rods and focusing on "outputs" rather than "inputs". Change has been in response to external demands, not least from employers and the cavalry charge of vocationalism led by the national vocational qualifications brigade.
Accountability is enforced by a contractual regime that seeks value for money simply in volume terms, and funds inputs (enrolments) rather than outputs (achievements, however defined). This contrasts with the Further Education Funding Council whose complex method attempts to relate funding to the pattern of student attendance as well as students' learning goals and their achievements. This is not to suggest that the HEFCE should adopt the FEFC method, which was designed to tackle problems such as a high drop-out rate and poor national record on sub-degree vocational qualifications.
Such a method implies a level of intervention and "planning" universities could see as a threat to their autonomy. It would also probably require an army of data collectors.
While the HEFCE and the new Teacher Training Agency reflect on approaches, perhaps a sharing of views on how funding methods might support and reinforce universities' teaching mission, inter alia by rewarding achievement, might not come amiss.
Diana Green is pro vice chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham.