Alison Wolf

December 17, 2004

What's on the sector's Christmas list this year? Peace, goodwill, achievable targets and an overseas scandal

This time of year makes me feel seriously inadequate. Cards arrive in November from acquaintances in the Far East that I haven't seen for years.

Meanwhile, my oldest friends just might hear from me the day before the spring term starts. But I do think about the significant others in my life: and here is what I would like some of the most important to find under the Christmas tree.

First, for my vice-chancellors past and present - and indeed for the whole of Universities UK - a painless target. This requires some careful crafting, but it does exist, even in education. The adult basic skills area, for example, has acquired what a senior Learning and Skills Council official described to me as "a target we're doomed to achieve".

The trick here was to go for an absolute number of "adult learners" who will "improve their basic skills" over so many years: not an increase, not a change in the proportion of adults, just a number. If that is pretty much a multiple of the numbers already taking courses that "count" towards the target, and you also pour lots of money into provision, you are almost home and dry. And indeed they are: with happy ministers boasting that more than half a million "adults" (anyone over 16) have improved their basic skills since the campaign began.

In higher education, one of the few things we know is how many "home" 18-year-olds will be coming along each year. It is, of course, falling: all over Europe potential mothers are failing to do their duty by the universities. In England and Wales, for example, there were 811,000 live births in 1961, 783,000 in 1971, 699,000 in 1991 and just 595,000 a decade later.

But there are opportunities here. We could surely register targets with the Office for Fair Access that promise falling numbers of middle-class UK entrants - and do so without inflicting handicaps on any applicant group or increasing our zero-sum fighting over particular desirable students.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England may be harder to satisfy since it focuses on proportions and school type, not numbers and social class. But it also insists that its "benchmarks" are not targets, so maybe we can take it at its word. In any case, I'm sure that Hefce's preferred Christmas present would be for Offa to vanish as soon as it is born, its functions swallowed back into the funding council. This may be beyond even Santa and his elves, so I hope Hefce will remember that it is the thought that counts.

The Quality Assurance Agency, however, should be easier to please. Our entrepreneurial universities are forever exporting and franchising courses and establishing overseas subsidiaries. These trade not only on their parent's brand but also on that of UK higher education as a whole. There is thus a good argument for a "weights and measures" watchdog to stop rogue institutions destroying our good name.

Should ministers finally realise that the cost-benefit balance for the QAA looks highly negative, a good overseas scandal or two should put any reform back on hold. So that is my present for academics' favourite quango, and I'm sure the sector can deliver.

Last, but far from least, is my present for education's "Cinderella" - further education. University academics complaining about bureaucracy would do well to spare a thought for further education. How many of us know, for example, about the nightmare spreadsheets on which their funding depends? A minimum of 60 pieces of information per student have to be submitted electronically to the LSC. And more when - as usually happens - a student is taking more than one course or qualification. Leave one "essential" field empty and the system spits the whole thing back.

So their present this festive season would be some self-completing software. You know the sort - you enter your postcode and all those other asterisked must-complete boxes leap into life. Think of the fortunes saved in administrative staff and the wholesale gain in sanity. And I can't see that it matters whether all that information is true: it is so short-term that any random census data might do the trick.

Unfortunately, this might be the present that does get delivered. Every schoolchild in Britain is already assigned a "unique number" to which their academic details are attached. Systems are gearing up for sharing information electronically among doctors, social services and the other "caring professions". Home Secretary David Blunkett's ID cards should close the circle. Punch the number in and away we go: everything about you, off to each and every agency in the realm. Not long to go now. Meanwhile, happy holidays everyone.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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