An elite sector key to meeting Labour's aims

October 1, 1999

At the end of Labour's svelte presidential convention, higher education finds itself in an ambiguous position. Universities, and particularly those that regularly top league tables, are central bastions of that conservative, elite establishment that came under withering fire in The Leader's speech. A degree from one of the higher prestige universities is now a more useful ticket to privilege in our society than an hereditary peerage.

But the government needs universities too badly to include them in the ranks of the enemy. Universities are among the main generators, through research, of the raw material of the knowledge-based economy. Lord Sainsbury's success in securing better support for research is recognition of this role.

The government needs higher education, too, as the top tier of the ladder that is to open opportunity to all the country's talents. Success in keeping more young people in education past 16 and bringing in more older people to learn new skills in later life will mean further expansion of higher education if aspirations are not to be thwarted. Hence the new target of 50 per cent participation.

This ambivalent attitude produces a strong desire to control what higher education does. Research is to be boosted, but selectively and closely monitored. Expansion is to resume, but concentrated on sub-degree vocational courses and part-

timers. Ideally these outcomes are to be secured through persuasion, but if progress (a word back in political fashion this week) is too slow, central intervention is not ruled out.

Faced with this approach, higher education, too, is ambivalent. People working in universities and colleges are overwhelmingly well disposed to the government's project of social inclusion and economic development and are eager to be involved. But resentment is growing at government reluctance to pay properly for the job or to trust people to deliver without oppressive bureaucratic monitoring. The government might find higher education less apparently conservative if nagged less and supported more.

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