Alison Wolf

August 3, 2007

I have just read two documents written in 1991, the year of the Major Government's White Paper on Higher Education. The authors, from very different points on the political spectrum, both vehemently opposed` the proposed legislation. Reading them, my first thought was that almost nothing has changed; my second that some things have changed very rapidly indeed.

The White Paper, as usual, became law with little alteration so our system is, in key respects, the product of its major proposals. They were: to increase participation from 20 per cent to 33 per cent by the end of the decade, and to end the "binary divide" by making polytechnics into universities.

One 1991 author was the former MP and minister Enoch Powell. Writing for the Centre for Policy Studies, he attacked the merger of polytechnics and universities as the death of universities as they had been and should be. Universities were places for the pursuit of knowledge and learning, he argued. Unlike polytechnics, they should be completely separate from the demands of the market.

Others, then and since, have also argued that the merger would distort the polytechnics' mission. Many countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, oppose a single sector, as much to preserve their polytechnic equivalents' role in training technical specialists as out of any commitment to "learning for its own sake" in the universities. But one cannot imagine turning that particular clock back here.

Also on the attack, in the 1991 Edward Boyle memorial lecture, was Ralf Dahrendorf - then warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, today a crossbench member of the House of Lords. Dahrendorf shared with Powell a loathing for the values that were driving the reforms. Then, as now, government constantly asserted our "need" for more university graduates on economic grounds. To Powell, in 1991, this was a "gross fallacy" perpetuated by a "barbarian state" suffering from a bad case of "old-fashioned flag-wagging nationalism" as it invoked the need for more universities in order to do its economic competitors down.

Dahrendorf thought it showed profound ignorance to argue that Britain's economic problems had anything to do with its universities, given the latter's condition elsewhere in Europe. He, too, was opposed to expansion, as "a recipe for disaster". European universities, he argued, had been destroyed by just such "mindless expansion", done - as this one would be - on the cheap.

So far, so good - and so contemporary. But it would be hard today to find mainstream establishment figures arguing that expansion is both intrinsically undesirable and stoppable. I was surprised that Dahrendorf, always alert to social trends, thought that middle-class demand for university education could be resisted. Yet he urged government "to leave universities alone, indeed to encourage them to contract in size and improve quality".

Today we worry about paying for, not halting, expansion and reversing the financial decline that he was correct to predict. And it is here that one notices how massively the policy debate has changed. For, in 1991, both authors took for granted that the state can and should pay for it all.

For Powell, generally regarded as a free marketeer, it is a historic "article of faith" that universities' activities deserve support, and that teachers and students should be paid for by charitable and government donation. And Dahrendorf exemplifies the way that recent change "has also corrupted the thinking of universities" by attacking overseas student fees.

In 2007, almost everyone in the UK treats our success in attracting overseas students as a source of pride. We may worry about the extent of dependence and the quality of some provision, but there is almost no mainstream opposition to the idea that this is a legitimate activity, that overseas students should pay, and that success is a justified reward for quality.

Dahrendorf, on the contrary, was appalled by the fact that Labour introduced, and the Conservatives continued, overseas student fees. They had, he argued, led to dubious degrees and underqualified students; commercialisation and financially driven decisions were the result. As for the idea that home students should pay fees, the idea never entered either writer's analysis in 1991.

Of course, there are still people today who think a mass system can be paid for entirely by the taxpayer and still retain quality. But it is inconceivable that serious policy discussions would fail even to debate the arguments for and against student fees, or multiple paymasters for the sector. 1991 is, after all, quite a long time ago.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London.

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