A world-class cause in need of champions

July 25, 1997

Someone asked if it worried me that our report would inevitably be compared with Robbins. The answer was a simple "no". It was enough of a job to bring this report home to the time deadline without seeking to measure it against the great Robbins.

But, on one issue, Robbins was in our minds from the first meeting until the end: his fourfold definition of the purposes of higher education.

One of my hopes for our report is that our restatement of those purposes will be compared with Robbins, reflected upon, and influence people in higher education.

In particular, I hope they will pick up our response to Robbins's fourth principle - transmitting a common culture and common standards of citizenship.

In a multicultural society and with current challenges to any system of values, we thought long and hard about what we should say.

What could we agree, all 17 of us, to commend to those in higher education who might not see themselves as custodians of a culture or a system of values that they were entitled to advocate and transmit on behalf of society?

My personal resp- onse was much influenced by an inaugural address by Sir Peter Ustinov, on his installation as chancellor of Durham University. Speaking in the cathedral, he said: "You Christians speak a lot of love, perhaps too lightly." He commended to us the unfashionable concept of respect. This has its echoes in the vision of higher education we offer in paragraph 1.4 of our report which includes the admonition to higher education to be part of the conscience of a democratic society, founded on respect for the rights of the individual and the reciprocal responsibilities of the individual to society as a whole.

But for our response in full, and in particular the contribution we had from Stewart Sutherland to whom we turned for counsel as a moral philosopher, you will need to turn to chapter 5 of the report.

I should also say, in response to the invited comparison with Robbins, that we do not see our report as the guiding light for the next 35 years. Our last main recommendation is that the Government should appoint another committee to review higher education in five years time, and subsequently every ten years.

Higher education is now far more important in national terms than 35 years ago. We see it at the heart of the nation's continuing ability to sustain an economically viable economy and a cultured, inclusive society.

Moreover, we may be at a point where the communication revolution begins to change, possibly profoundly, some of the ways we think about the provision of education.

We have no doubt that direct contact between one human being and another, face to face, will continue to lie at the heart of higher education. But we see higher education developing its use of communications technology. We see collaboration in the provision of world-class learning becoming both a major opportunity and a major threat. We see strong partnerships between institutions and corporations in lifelong learning becoming common place.

In five years' time, we may not be able to see the future any more certainly than now, but at least we shall be able to weigh up the implications of what has happened between 1997 and 2002.

Our report says the things we believe need to be said and many of its recommendations will make uncomfortable reading for some. It is of the nature of mankind to be territorial, and not a little self-interested. People have, rightly, a commitment to what they do and the way they do it. But that does not necessarily mean they are right.

I have a personal worry, now the committee has finished its work and I am let out to cultivate my garden, that the report will have no champion to fight its battles. Fighting there will need to be, if the report is to achieve its purpose. Its purpose is nothing less than to enable the United Kingdom to have a world-class system of higher education - in teaching as well as research.

We end the report with a list of where the champions should be found for each and every recommendation we make. I therefore ask readers of this article, and especially the chairs of councils, vice chancellors and principals, student leaders, and the leaders of central and representative bodies, as well as the Government, to accept the remits for action we have given them.

Perhaps The THES, as a forum for the community of higher education, might from time to time act as the spur to good intent, and even more to any lack of intent.

Sir Ron Dearing is chairman of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education.

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