Abandon your bunker mentality, urges Frayling, as he calls for focus on society's needs

April 20, 2007

Higher education must effect a "major cultural and attitudinal" change if it is to meet the needs of society and the economy, delegates at the Higher Education Funding Council for England's conference were due to hear this week.

Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art, was expected to argue in support of revolutionary change in higher education, in a debate at Hefce's annual conference at Hertfordshire University this week.

He told The Times Higher , ahead of the debate, that it was time for the sector to seize the higher ground on issues that many academics were "scared" of, such as skills, vocational education and engagement with employers.

Sir Christopher said: "It was exactly ten years ago when Lord Dearing presented a preview of his report to the Hefce conference, and threw down various gauntlets designed to create a sector that would meet the needs of society and the economy in the 21st century. In almost every case there is still a lot of unfinished business. We need to ask why that is - what are we scared of?"

He said the sector needed to get out of its bunker mentality, epitomised by language used to describe connections with the outside world, such as "outreach".

But Baroness Blackstone, Greenwich University vice-chancellor and former higher education minister, countered that revolution was not needed and could be a backward step in a sector that was performing very well on most fronts.

Lady Blackstone said it should be recognised that UK higher education was a huge success story, and that too many initiatives and changes were unlikely to lead to big improvements.

"Having run things as a minister and a vice-chancellor, I now know that you often get better outcomes if you are not continuously having your eye taken off the ball because you are constantly trying to reorganise in response to radical changes. It is far better to focus on gradual improvements to what you are already doing," she argued.

Meanwhile, Baroness Warwick, head of Universities UK, said this week that universities and their staff were playing a crucial role in tackling problems that affect the whole world, such as conflict, terrorism and global warming.

Speaking ahead of a House of Lords debate in which she was due to argue for further investment in higher education from the Government's spending review, she said: "Our world-class research departments in both the social sciences and the sciences are essential to combating and understanding the threat of global conflict and terrorism.

"With regard to our ageing population, higher education has a key role in equipping the UK workforce to be more productive for longer. Finally, universities are at the forefront of the green agenda"

Lady Warwick said that the staff who worked in higher education institutions were critical to the success and the global standing of the UK. "The productivity and quality of our researchers remains second only to the US - for example, they produce 9 per cent of the world's scientific papers and achieve a 12 per cent citation share with only 4.5 per cent of the world's spend on science," she said.

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