A challenge for the next 30 years...

October 19, 2001

The THES celebrates its pearl anniversary this week. Thirty years may be a scratch on the history of universities, but for British higher education they have been momentous.

In October 1971 the polytechnics were new-born; colleges of higher education were not yet a formal group; there were fewer than 500,000 students; no research assessment exercise; no quality assurance agency; no laws at all relating to universities in general. Power was dispersed. The nationalisation that Simon Jenkins describes was yet to begin. Tariq Ali and his friends could afford to challenge authorities not much concerned to quash them.

Much is familiar: 30 years ago the government was urging the introduction of two-year degrees; too few students were applying for places in science and engineering; distribution of research money was under scrutiny; and policy-makers were deploring the strangehold of privilege on higher education.

But much has changed. There are nearly four times as many students, more than half of them female. Part-time study is growing. So is debt. Working your way through college is now the norm, not some strange practice rumoured to exist in North America. The number of universities has more than doubled while the money to teach each student has halved. Lianas of regulation have grown round an academic profession that has become less secure and worse-paid. But in a world where talk is the medium for brokering new ways, clever people delivered one of the great successes of the late 20th century: transition from an elite ancien régime to efficient mass provision.

Whatever the vagaries of policy - cuts in 1981, the polytechnics becoming universities in 1992, means-testing of fees in 1998 - the trend in the 30 years of The THES 's existence has been for higher education to move closer to the centre of national life. Advanced teaching and research are vital to the economy and to individual prosperity. As participation nears 50 per cent, we need now to go faster not slower. It makes no sense to ration supply to arbitrary percentages. Excluding half the population cannot be justified. The challenge for the next 30 years is to find ways to move from mass to universal access so that everyone can study what they want, when and where they choose. Money, location, delivery, type of course, assessment and regulation, while difficult, are essentially second order.

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