A mine of solutions for Solomon

March 1, 1996

The Dearing committee's task is to cull the best ideas from the great debate on higher education, not to dream up something new, argues Frank Gould (below). Nigel Forman (right) adds that new private sources of funding should be encouraged and suggests that unpopular courses be closed to maintain quality STORY: The announcement by Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, that she was setting up a committee of inquiry into the future of higher education, to report in late 1997, was generally received in the sector with a groan of resignation. This response was in no way related to her decision to appoint Sir Ron Dearing as chairman: he is held in very high esteem throughout the sector.

It was also not just a sceptical reaction to probable delaying tactics by the Government.

Rather it was because the future structure, size, shape and funding of higher education has now been described, analysed, dissected, projected and predicted by thousands upon thousands of spoken and written words over the past three to four years. There has been an endless debate in the specialist journals both in the United Kingdom and abroad, conferences and seminars, the specialist newspapers and the education sections of the broadsheets.

With the wisdom of Solomon Sir Ron and his committee are unlikely to come up with anything new although, no doubt, they will do a splendid job of synthesising the more robust ideas that have emerged from the great debate we have all been involved in.

The truth is, that unless you are quite myopic, the trends of the size, shape, structure and funding of higher education are clearly there already, writ very large.

In this respect it is encouraging that Sir Ron will be looking at experience overseas, for comparative studies have identified that universities, like many other activities, are subject to powerful economic and social forces which lead to convergence. The collapse of eastern European communism/ socialism and its replacement by western-style capitalism is perhaps the most recent and striking example of convergence.

Equally we might point to the rapid social and economic transformation of the more traditional southern Mediterranean and many Asian countries to a way of life more recognisable as American/north west European.

Let us take the specified areas of the committee of inquiry in turn. Future size is fairly easy to predict: it will be considerably larger than the 30 per cent of young people currently entering higher education and more likely to stabilise somewhere between 40-50 per cent, which is about the level in most of our economic competitors.

The explanation is quite simple: as societies become wealthier and the standard of living rises so the consumption of education, health care, foreign travel and other higher quality products and services increases. If there are such things as long-term laws in economics this is one. The recent identification in the University and Colleges Admissons Service statistics of a proportionate increase in the number of 18/19-year-olds within the total number of applicants to university for the coming year is a piece of confirming evidence of this trend.

In terms of shape and structure, depending how you define these concepts, it is interesting to carry out a small private exercise. Supposing you were offered Pounds x million to build a new university campus: would it be radically different from existing universities or simply provide you with an opportunity to move faster in the direction that universities are already, albeit differentially, moving. For me and my partner colleagues in a number of east London universities this is not an idle exercise as we set about the detailed planning for a Pounds 40 million campus in the Royal Docks.

The answer is likely to be the latter. Go back to the universities that were created in the 1960s and you will see that although some of them introduced differences in organisational structures, configurations of academic disciplines and modes of delivery, these changes tended to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Only the Open University and later the private University of Buckingham can be said to have introduced revolutionary change into UK higher education. Interestingly, while many universities have made increasing use of open learning/IT-based techniques on a piecemeal basis, no other university has adopted the two-year undergraduate degree structure.

The trends which are generally perceivable and are likely to accelerate in the near future are that delivery mechanisms will become more flexible from the point of view of the student, and teaching and learning will become more information technology-based.

The extent of the latter, in terms of telecommunications infrastructure and multimedia-based learning, is more a function of funds available, although there is still a good deal of conservatism to overcome among academic staff. Thus, although chalk is likely to be replaced, talk (personal contact) between students and academic staff will never be totally replaced because this is at the heart of the university experience. For students in general, off-campus, on-line learning will never totally replace coming to and working at the university campus because social interaction with kindred spirits is also at the heart of the university experience.

The amount of funds available for electronic communication will also determine the extent to which the university of the future will be able to become the electronic gateway for information flow between it and the schools, community centres, homes, offices and businesses in its region.

In terms of flexibility in the delivery of programmes there is already much food for thought and pointers to the future in David Robertson's very important study, Choosing to Change.

The future in terms of funding is even less difficult to predict. Apart from a small minority who cling to "free university education as an entitlement", just about every organisation concerned with higher education has come round to the view that in the future students will have to contribute towards the cost of their university education. It is now simply a matter of a Government having the will to introduce such a scheme.

There is hardly even a debate over the mechanics of such an idea. It has to be via a loan, paid back during the graduate's working life through the tax or national insurance system and contingent on his/her income. Only the detailed mechanism has to be worked out and even here we do not have to invent the wheel because there is such a scheme operating in Australia. What has to be overcome is a deeply conservative Treasury which has to be persuaded that the hypothecation of a tax - ie used exclusively for the purposes for which it was raised - is not heresy.

I have no doubt that Sir Ron will do an excellent job. It is understood why neither Government nor Opposition wish to see the committee report until after the next election: hence the groan of resignation, since we now face several years of hard times until at least September 1999, when the necessary legislation will have wended its way through Parliament.

In setting up his committee Sir Ron will do well to heed Machiavelli's words: "Good advice, whomsoever it comes from, depends on the shrewdness of the Prince who seeks it and not the shrewdness of the Prince on good advice."

Frank Gould is vice chancellor of the University of East London.

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