More trouble than it's worth

October 24, 1997

Martin Trow explains why he thinks the Dearing report is part of the problem facing higher education and not the solution

Far from being a solution to the problems of British higher education, the Dearing report is part of the problem. It is flawed in a number of ways, notably that it is written from outside the system, looking in. Although the committee included eight university administrators, there is no sense that it is written out of direct experience of teaching or research in the universities and colleges. It does not reflect the structure of values or common responses of ordinary teachers - perhaps because the committee did not include one ordinary university teacher who could bring that experience into its discussions.

Despite the mass of evidence gathered, at point after point the report reveals a shocking ignorance about how universities actually work, and how their administrators and teaching staff have responded to the pressures of the past two decades. There is no serious description or analysis of the transformation of the teaching/learning environment as student/staff ratios have doubled, and as administrative staffs have expanded and expanded again under the burden of accountability documents and reports. Or how much of the creative imagination of senior administrative staffs have gone into trying to outwit the funding councils with one barely legal scam after another. Oliver Fulton and I have been studying the ways in which new and old universities have been coping with these managerial and funding regimes; we have hours of interviews detailing what it has been like to keep an institution's head above water in the face of a steady and unremitting diet of falsely labelled "efficiency gains". One would never dream that the world that we have been studying in the field is the same world that Dearing is preaching to.

The report has much to say about teaching and learning, about all sorts of matters having to do with what I have called "the private life'' of higher education - the life that is experienced in lecture hall and seminar, in a teacher's room or office, in libraries and laboratories - the life of teaching and learning by contrast with the concerns for organisation, management, governance and finance that I have called "the public life'' of higher education. Here my sense of the report coming from the outside looking in is very strong. There is an extraordinary amount of exhortation to staff to do more with less, but very little feeling of academic life as students and teachers live and experience it, and little sense of the enormous variety in that experience. If the committee had acknowledged and considered the implications of that variety, it would have been impossible for them to make the sweeping judgements and recommendations that they do.

The tone of their views on students and learning, and on the work of academics themselves, is established very early in their chapter on that subject: "Teachers will have to respond to a changing - and more discerning and demanding - student population. They are more likely to have to work increasingly in partnership - or in competition- with publishers, film-makers and broadcasters as the growth of information technology opens up new ways of learning and teaching. They will be increasingly involved in learning partnerships with major employers. They will need to deliver a learning experience in higher education which enthuses students to become lifelong learners. They will need to encourage all students to aspire to a deep understanding and experience of their area of study at whatever level they are studying''.

The object of these mandates are university and college "teachers", wholly undifferentiated by type of institution, or discipline, or research interests. Moreover, all these supposed "needs'' are mixtures of prediction and preference; they are simply asserted and not demonstrated; even when partly true, they vary greatly in urgency and character among different kinds of institutions and subjects, and students of different talents and motivations. And meeting those "needs", where that is possible or desirable, may have real costs in time, energy and money attached to it. Of these important qualifications we hear little or nothing: neither of diversity nor of costs. Without those dimensions of reality they remain mere platitudes.

We hear that kind of empty platitude again in their recommendation eight: "We recommend that, with immediate effect, all institutions of higher education give high priority to developing and implanting learning and teaching strategies which focus on the promotion of students' learning''. I like particularly the intensifier "with immediate effect'': the phrase suggests how strong is the committee's illusion that universities are organised like firms, bureaucratically, with clear lines of authority that can ensure that instructions down the line will be obeyed "with immediate effect".

The report's very clear message is that given the new conditions in British higher education - higher student/staff ratios, larger class sizes, less contact time with teachers, and so forth - better management must replace the missing resources. This may be right for some subjects in some institutions; it surely is not right for all, and the question is not addressed about what to do where it is not right. Some part of the work of higher education chiefly involves the transmission of skills and knowledge - the skills themselves may be of a very high order. Other kinds of courses and programmes aim at the shaping of mind and sensibility, the development of independent and critical modes of thought. These different aims call for quite different forms of instruction. And the balance between these kinds of higher education differs sharply between institutions, and within institutions between subjects, and even within subjects. So these generalised assertions simply do not apply across the board of colleges and universities, and despite the reference to the "diversity of students'' the recommendation ironically ignores both their diversity of talents and interests, and also the diversity between and within institutions in the aims and functions of the instruction provided.

Such generalised assertions about what must or should happen also do not reflect the actual processes by which decisions are made about teaching and learning in universities, or the very considerable authority over teaching that still inheres in the teaching staff itself. On the whole, if anything good is to happen in a university it must depend on the willing involvement or at least the assent of the teaching staff. The bureaucratic assumptions of the report are reflected in its absence of concern about how that willing assent can be evoked; implicit in much of what is recommended is that if only the senior administrative staff of an institution can be persuaded about a course of action, then it can find the means to introduce and implement new policies.

If the report were not so bent on exhorting and recommending, it might have raised and explored some questions. The committee might have asked: what kinds of education we could offer in the UK at average student/staff ratios of 20:1? What is the actual range of variation in that crucial indicator of support, and what parallel variation could be sketched in the forms and character of teaching and learning in this country? The report constantly shies away from engaging with the quite substantial differences between elite, mass and universal access education, and the sensitive issue of whether it wants to or can countenance differences in support levels associated with those different forms. But without disaggregating the system, discussions of its average character become nearly meaningless. On the one hand, at the level of ideals we hear the familiar elite goals and values; when the report talks in more detail, we find ourselves much closer to the managed and more vocationally linked world of the post-1992 universities. Dearing, and perhaps the nation more generally, has never fully accepted that it has created a system of mass higher education with both continuing elite survivals and rapidly growing forms and institutions of open access. And this genuinely diverse system is hobbled in its development by broad statements of expectation and support, rules and policies that apply to all equally.

The creation of national bodies with common criteria across the board flows naturally from the committee's inability to accept the diversity of institutions - of form, function, and standard- in British higher education. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the report's call for yet another national agency, a Quality Assurance Agency, to "assure the quality of higher education provision and the standards of its awards". This agency would also create and manage a "strengthened external examiner system" to enforce a system of common standards across all institutions and departments. This renewed commitment to a "gold standard" of "quality" is very much a Canute-like set of instructions to the incoming tide. A common standard of performance and achievement does not exist in British higher education today, and has not for many years. The notion that it does, and efforts to sustain it, are the subject of derisory comment by every academic and academic administrator with whom I have spoken.

The issue is not whether standards in one place are higher or lower than in another, but rather that they are so profoundly different that they cannot be measured against the same yardstick. And that is the essence of mass higher education. It is not that the myriad courses and programmes that are offered in British colleges and universities cannot be assessed, but they can only be assessed against their own criteria, or by people close to them who can know what those criteria are and how they are being applied.

The demand for "common standards" is mostly empty rhetoric, involving the invention and adoption of "national codes of practice" and explicit statements by each institution "about the content of, and terminal standards for, the awards they offer". The demand for the enforcement of "common standards" leads to more substantial mischief, notably a "strengthened external examiner system." The Quality Assurance Agency is to "assure the quality of higher education provision and the standards of its awards." It is to attempt this impossible task in a variety of ways, not least through "..... the creation of a UK-wide pool of recognised academic staff from which all universities and other degree-awarding institutions must select external examiners. Examiners should be academics of high standing and integrity who are sufficiently specialised within degree disciplines. The pool could be created through nomination by institutions of appropriately qualified staff, with a small panel - managed by the agency - to approve the inclusion of any individual on the nationally recognised list." It is not clear whether the "academics of high standing" who are nominated would, as we said in the services, be "volunteered" by their institutions, or whether they would be permitted to decline the honour, perhaps out of an excess of modesty.

These examiners would examine in every department in every institution in the country, and unlike current practice, already fast breaking down, they would not serve simply at the invitation of the host institution, but on assignment by the agency. The relationship between host department and examiner would not be direct, but would be vetted and managed by the agency. The agency, moreover, would accept responsibility for the quality and preparation of the examiners: "The remit of the external examiner will need to be consistent across the UK, necessitating thorough familiarisation, training and preparation, including a trainee/apprentice model for new external examiners."

These proposals are rooted in a deep lack of familiarity with the nature of colleges and universities, and how they and the people in them function. If external examiners are to have any real effect on the quality of work of any group being assessed, the examiners have to be respected by their hosts. I doubt if examiners recruited, trained and assigned along the lines recommended by Dearing would have the confidence of departments and programmes to which they are posted and where they are examining. Moreover, those examiners who come out of the agency's pool are not only reviewing scripts and assessing programmes, but are also reporting to the agency, which will then decide on steps to take to defend national standards - and that must be a source of tension between examiners and the programmes being examined.

The proposal shows no awareness of the fine specialisation of academic studies and courses, and the diversity of work even within disciplines. The sub-disciplines are the true units of academic work, and there are many more of them than there are disciplines, and fewer practitioners of each. When we add the growing number of interdisciplinary courses, it is clear that the map of knowledge is too wide and varied to be managed and assessed in this way; intellectual life in colleges and universities can no longer be controlled or monitored by any central agency. It is precisely the report's lack of understanding of the nature of academic life that leads to this kind of managerial illusion. Universities and colleges are not simply extensions of secondary schools, with a defined and limited range of studies and courses. Academic life is continually bursting out of any pre-defined boundaries, never more than just now. That is just what makes centralised efforts to manage and control intellectual life hopeless. But when those efforts are armed with the power of the state, they are also costly and destructive. British higher education has been paying those costs and suffering those injuries for some time now, which may be why it finds this report and its recommendations so familiar.

Many years ago I suggested that the important question for a system of elite colleges and universities is "What should we do?'' while the central question to ask of mass education is "What's going on?'' This report, in those large sections that address the private life of higher education, the life of teaching and learning, simply does not know what is going on inside the colleges and universities, their classrooms and offices and laboratories, but still pronounces with an air of great authority about what should be happening. But policy based on ignorance is bad policy: not only does it not achieve its ends, but it is likely to have a range of unintended and undesired effects which the next round of policy will have to try to remove or amend. In this, as in so much else, Dearing is a true child of Thatcher/Major. It remains to be seen how much of that child will be adopted by their successors.

Martin Trow is professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy and the Center for Studies in Higher Education University of California, Berkeley. The article is an extract from a paper given at Great Missenden on October 10. It will be published in full in Higher Education Quarterly in January 1998.

26JperspectiveTHE TIMES 7JOctober 24J1997 'The Dearing report simply does not know what is going on inside the colleges and universities I but still pronounces with an air of great authority about what should be happening' volker strater

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments