At the annual conference of the National Union of Students in Blackpool, I was surprised to find much of the discussion taken up by the need to improve "access" to higher education. Of all the things the Government and NUS have tried to do over the last few years, their one success has been to increase the number of students.
Although the discussion about "access" almost always takes the form of a debate about numbers, I feel that this is the least important part of the process. If the statistics meant that an increasing number of young people were getting equal access to an Oxbridge-standard education, then I would be standing with the NUS congratulating the Government on its success. What concerns me is the hidden side of "Access for All", which means that whatever students today are getting access to, it is not a quality education.
When the NUS talks about "Access for All", it makes no secret of the fact that it is talking about getting more and more students into college. Part-time courses, modularity, semesterisation and distance learning are among the many radical-sounding policy reforms which the NUS champions, as a way to get as many students through the system as possible. Every discussion about funding and student maintenance turns on the extent to which it will improve access.
The need to improve access has formed the basis of a dramatic restructuring. Polytechnics were transformed into universities, to encourage students by getting rid of the idea that the only "proper" degree came from an old university. Universities began to adopt programmes of "flexible learning", which ran an increasing number of courses on a modular basis and gave students the option of covering a wide range of subjects rather than follow one discipline through. Finally, the introduction of semesterised academic years is intended to make it easier for students to complete their degrees quickly or to spread them out over a longer time span.
Many of these changes in the way degrees are gained are immediately perceived by students as a good thing. One of my main reasons for choosing the University of Sussex in 1993 was that I could do what appeared to be a very exciting range of subjects. After a relatively dry diet of A-level languages, the thought of a course called "The Modern European Mind" and covering issues as diverse as postmodernism and Shakespeare in two terms seemed exciting and challenging.
Unfortunately, the reality of flexible, modularised courses is that they teach a little about a lot of things, but nothing in any real depth. I became very frustrated that one week we would discuss a subject that I wanted to explore more, but before I knew it we were on to something different. The fact that subjects were not covered in any real depth was used as a justification for large seminar groups run by a tutor whose speciality often lay in a completely different area, and the notion of flexible teaching was adapted to mean the provision of very little teaching. As I go into the third term of my second year, receiving a grand total of one hour contact time per week, I know there is something wrong.
Moves towards part-time education, semesterisation and distance learning are based on an idea similar to modularity: that it is better to give many people some kind of education than to give a few education of a high quality. This idea goes against the very notion of what a university should provide.
Access is justified in terms of anti-elitism - that education used to be for the privileged few, and now more people than ever can take part. But what no one arguing for access takes into account is that the elitism of the old university system existed because you had to fight to get into it, and that once you got in, you received an education worth fighting for.
Universities today seem to play a very different role. Crammed full of students all studying lots of very little and obsessed more with their diminishing grant cheque and their part-time bar job than the development of new ideas, it is clear that the restructuring of higher education is about solving the problem of elitist education by getting rid of education itself. Students today have to finance themselves to teach themselves to get a degree that nearly everyone else has got, while the development of ideas takes second place to the need simply to take more people through the system.
What is really being attacked in the reaction against elitism and the elevation of access is the notion of excellence. Yet striving towards excellence is what leads individuals - and society - to develop new ideas. Replacing the pursuit of excellence with a form of mass comprehensive system for adults can only result in students losing out on a decent education, and society as a whole failing to develop the new ideas it so badly needs.
Jennie Bristow is a student at the University of Sussex.