A fair, flexible system is an economic necessity

July 19, 2002

The UK must look to Europe and the US to develop the higher education system it needs, argues David Robertson

The biggest public spending settlement in living memory, higher education prospects enhanced by success in schools and colleges, and sectoral and funding reform in a ten-year strategy paper this autumn. As the mist rises from the spending review, we see the wood: the trees apparently come later.

But some things remain clear. Prior to chancellor Gordon Brown's announcement, prime minister Tony Blair repeated his commitment to 50 per cent participation by 2010. This target is more than a philanthropic preference: democratic participation in higher education, and the funding of schools, colleges and individuals to make it possible, are a national economic necessity.

Few nations have productivity levels surpassing the UK's. Of those that do, both the US and France are near to achieving 50 per cent participation. By 2010, we can assume Germany will join them. Nothing in the evidence from our principal competitors suggests that productivity gains can be achieved without the skills released into the labour market from inclusive higher education.

That said, the secret of higher productivity in other countries lies not in the volume of participation alone but in its composition. The US, France and Germany get it right in their different ways with an appropriate mix of high and intermediate-level skills combining the academic and vocational, spread across a broad social space and across more differentiated institutions than in the UK.

The evidence also indicates that the UK lags behind these competitors in socially fair entry and meritocratic student progression. We are far from purging our national culture of class-based attitudes towards the institutions, qualifications and practices we define as valuable.

The consequence of such elitism is that the best becomes the enemy of the good. One hears this in a recent claim by one vice-chancellor that some universities need higher fees because they are "Rolls-Royces" whereas others are merely "Skodas".

Comments of this nature not only undermine confidence in a differentiated higher education, they also elevate the few above the many. How are we to emulate the US, France and Germany in attracting more people into a differentiated higher education sector if efforts are met with self-serving scorn? What next: cheaper equals dumber?

Undistracted, the government presses on with the conditions for broad-based higher education. The schools green paper, although a mess as it stands, contains within it a silent solution screaming to be heard - the French baccalaureate . Recent commitments to a new role for colleges, enhanced achievement targets and maintenance awards for young people pave the way for mass entry via the foundation degree, itself a policy "borrowed" from the US. Putting the best of Europe and the US together could be the way forward for the UK.

We have an unsustainable state of affairs, a differentiated system pretending to be uniform. In its place, a range of provision is likely to emerge in which costs are more closely related to personal rates of return, and in which public subsidies address market failures in skills supply. One thing is therefore likely: by 2005, either to stimulate the foundation degree or to generate cash for redistribution, or both, we will have differentiation by fees.

The foundation degree is essential because it is the hinge on which strategies for wider participation and workforce development must swing. If the hinge breaks, those strategies fail. If the foundation degree thrives, we face the enticing prospect of building a coherent educational "climbing frame" in line with international best practice and accessible to the majority. Its platform would lie in the final years of school with the general, professional and technical pathways of the French baccalaureate . Students would feed directly into universities as now, or into an intermediate stage based on the US associate degree and delivered mainly in colleges. The framework would be completed by the efficient UK honours degree. A climbing frame simple, comprehensible and likely to succeed.

What could go wrong? Plenty. We could be heading for a global recession; the government might get cold feet; the collective dumb insolence of universities might stall reforms; or the ten-year-strategy process could place a layer of stodge on the sector. But provided we manage to step around such matters, the UK could create a differentiated system that is risk-tolerant, energetic, accessible and flexible. But that means the government and its agencies would need to step back a pace or two and let invention rule. We can at least hope.

David Robertson is professor of public policy and education at Liverpool John Moores University.

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