Merger of the education and employment ministries is long overdue. . . but there are doubters. Mary Warnock warns of the dangers to 'genuine academic education'
The marriage of education and training seems finally to have taken place: at least they are living under one roof, with one minister to look after them. A designer has probably already brought out a new logo, and the printing presses must be at work again on new writing paper (it seems no time since they had a new lot). The press has been pretty ecstatic about the marriage. A great deal has been made of the harmonisation of A Levels and GNVQ; John Major is praised for having "bridged the academic/vocational divide"; and Gillian Shephard's new task is described as "to educate the workforce, as well as to run schools and colleges". In all this excitement, there is little about universities, so we may ask how they will fare in the harmonious merger. The answer is that we cannot know. Optimists say that things will be hardly any different. We have had panics about university education before, and things are still much the same, in that people still teach and learn non-vocational, academic subjects, both sciences and arts, and universities still contribute to the training of doctors, lawyers and teachers. They will probably survive this latest change perfectly well. I do not feel so sanguine.
The prospects have been made far more obscure, if not actually worse, by the growth of the university sector, or, more accurately, the decision to call polytechnics universities. We allowed this to happen for a variety of reasons. Some people thought "well . . . they've been doing a good job. They already give degrees (albeit validated by the CNAA). If they want to be called universities, why not let them? What's in a name?" Others were more acutely frightened of appearing elitist, of trying to save the name "university" for a relatively small, and relatively select group of institutions of higher education. Others again were conscious that the polytechnics were not on the whole, confining themselves to the kind of technological education for which they had been set up, but were already offering courses in highly specialist academic subjects, narrower and more "pure", in some instances, than those which most universities offered, and that this kind of "academic drift", as it used to be called, made it inevitable that in the end polytechnics should become universities and give their own degrees. So why not now?
For whatever reasons, the decision was made and it has led to nothing but confusion. It is now not at all clear what a university is, what kind of education it is supposed to provide. In the United States this is a perfectly familiar phenomenon. The title "university professor" means absolutely nothing, for its holder may be an expert in hairdressing or motor mechanics or astro-physics or pure mathematics or medieval history. There is no means of telling. If you are to lay bare your credentials as an academic, you have to specify that you are a professor at Harvard or Princeton, or one of a smallish but agreed list of top-class universities. The word "university", unqualified, has in fact lost its meaning. We in the United Kingdom are halfway to this position now: Oxford, Cambridge, London, Edinburgh, Warwick . . . there is a longish list of academically recognised institutions. But it will take us a long time to accept this fact without any feeling of guilt or bad elitism or old-fashioned intellectual snobbishness. And meanwhile there are two dangers.
First, since all are universities, there is a danger that funding may go more generously to those universities which specialise in vocational education. The more we become accustomed to the vocational and the academic being no different, deserving equal esteem, and both equally, now, taught at university, the easier it will be to slip into the assumption that "Britain's Workforce" needs vocational, rather than academic education, but with the added satisfaction of getting a degree. Motor mechanics as well as engineers, pharmacists as well as pharmacologists must all be awarded degrees by their universities, and all can be so honoured. This, unless we are careful, may be where the funding money goes.
Second, some may begin to ask, and indeed are asking already, whether all these new graduates are strictly necessary. If we want a "workforce", well educated, it is true, worthy of esteem, certainly, but not academic, do they need a degree? It is this question that reveals the terrible confusion in the move to turn polytechnics and other institutions of higher education into universities. If it is generally thought that the new-style workforce needs nothing except school or college-based vocational qualifications, before going into work, ready to learn more on the job, then we will be faced with redundant universities, some of which may in the end revert to their role of polytechnics or technical colleges, others of which may close.
More serious, however, than these two dangers is the danger to genuine academic education, and with it, indissolubly linked, to research. Now that the vocational is to be married to the academic, will there be anyone in Gillian Shephard's new ministry to speak up for pure science, for mathematics, philosophy, history, music, in short for those subjects which, whether at undergraduate or postgraduate or fellowship level, have actually been the centre of university education? Even to articulate such a question risks ridicule. One is a "traditionalist", in other words a dodo. Yet it is a question that must be raised.
We have to ask ourselves more urgently than ever before, whether we want to squeeze out the free pursuit of the liberal arts and sciences, to make room for more of what the ministry demands. It is perfectly proper for government to lay down standards of training, (with the advice of professional bodies, or of industry). But no minister can lay down what is to be taught, what dialogue is to take place between teachers and pupils, in the areas which are the source of new knowledge, the origin of the critical, undogmatic, above all imaginative examination of received wisdom, from which ultimately all intellectual standards flow.
It is good, at school, to let children follow their bent, and encourage them to be skilled technicians rather than failed academics, if this is where their success will lie, and to esteem them for their successes, and make use of their skills. But we cannot afford, in the wake of this change, to pretend that there is no stage where the intellectual, the abstract and the purely experimental may be given admiration, and accorded authority. We must recognise that in the end, (though not at school), in the marriage between education and training, it is education, together with research, that must be the dominant partner.
Baroness Warnock is former mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.