...and time for decisions

March 17, 1995

Higher education is in a different position from further education. The period of "consolidation" imposed by the Government has at least provided stability. The funding machinery is up and running. Quality assurance arrangements have been tested and decisions can now be made on a robust system for the future. The scandal of the Student Loans Company has reached the point where reform can be undertaken. The time has now come for decisions on the next round of changes needed to ensure higher education is ready for resumed expansion.

Expansion must resume. Two groups are set to renew the pressure on places. The first is familiar - 18-year-olds, clutching their Alevel certificates. A dip in the birthrate in the late 1960s and 1970s meant that participation percentages could climb without numbers going up in the early 1990s. But the age group will be increasing again from next year.

The second group is the direct consequence of expansion in further education. Many have been persuaded into further education by the promise of a non-A level route into higher education. To shut the doors on them would be a betrayal.

To these direct pressures will be added a political imperative. Having breached the 30 per cent age participation barrier some years before the millennium, it is natural that the Government should have regarded their one in three target for the end of the century as as good as achieved. But, as the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals points out in its timely briefing on numbers, an extra 20,000 places will be needed if the target is to be reached.

Whichever party is in power, it will have to deliver expansion. The Conservatives will be committed by a promise made, and relatively easily attainable. Labour will not want to be outbid by its predecessors and in any case looks increasingly likely to favour the CBI target of a 40 per cent participation rate - or 90,000 extra students.

The biggest issue is how to pay for it all. Both government and funding councils have tested the elasticity of the system, and repeatedly found it capable of yet another stretch. It is not clear what they would accept as evidence of its limits. There will not be some spectacular breakdown. Academics, whatever the criticisms of their professionalism, will go on papering over the cracks. Administrators will continue to demand blood from stones. Discontented students are more likely to drop-out than protest vigorously against deterioration.

All have an interest in denying publicly what they readily admit privately, that standards are falling. But what is sure is that if they are falling now, they cannot be sustained without more money when expansion resumes.

The debate on how to pay for more higher education has been rumbling on for years. The groundwork has been done. The Shephard review will have to report soon. What is needed now is decisions; for politicians to stop putting the matter off until conveniently the other side of the next election.

New systems will need to be implemented rapidly by the next incoming government - if not before. Credit-based systems; the relationship between further and higher education; between under and postgraduate study; between full and part-time study need to be sorted out; plans need to be laid for proper support and loans schemes; for proper accreditation arrangements.

And, as the background against which changes are decided, higher education needs to continue to stake its claim to a key role in national life. Incoming CVCP chairman Gareth Roberts, who will be required to lead higher education in these crucial years, will, as he well knows, need to make sure that as many institutions and groups as possible appreciate higher education's importance to national life as painful changes are introduced.

Universities failed utterly to achieve such support in the years of prosperity in the 1960s and 1970s, and paid the penalty of friendlessness in the 1980s. The lesson from those years is not just that better public relations are needed. Failure then stemmed from aloof attitudes. Higher education will only get the public support it needs if it truly is engaged in the national enterprise.

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