Another fine mess we must get into

Sir David Watson rates the performance of Cable and Willetts and offers them his vision of the academy’s future – a flexible but united sector providing long-term learning on American lines

July 21, 2010

The history of coalition governments in the UK suggests that they survive by conspiring not to pose the questions that divide them.

In May’s general election, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats assumed diametrically opposed positions on higher education. This was not just about undergraduate fees. The Conservatives promised continued expansion on the grounds of both social mobility and economic priority. The Lib Dems (not just because they struggled to see how to pay for expansion) argued that enough was enough. Perversely, in terms of many of their other policies, they have come to be the “pulling up the ladder” party in terms of the academy.

It is deeply ironic that Vince Cable, the business secretary, has reached into the phrase bag of higher education policymakers and pulled out one last used by a highly unpopular Conservative secretary of state, John Patten, who in 1992 declared a “period of consolidation” for the sector. The signs are that the coalition will try to reduce the potentially noisy clash between Tory spending cuts and Lib Dem queasiness over tuition fees by applying the volume control: turning it down at a time when almost every other major system is turning it up.

That said, Cable and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, got a number of things right in their respective (and remarkably similar) speeches at London South Bank University and Oxford Brookes University recently.

The current arrangements for the graduate contribution system, cobbled together during the second reading of the 2004 Higher Education Act, are a highly expensive and inefficient millstone around the necks of both the UK’s public finances and sensible planning for a more responsive and flexible academy. A graduate tax would be simpler, fairer and more progressive. It is probably what Lord Dearing would have recommended in 1997 if both major parties at the time had not set their faces against it.

Not least because of this millstone (which must also be weighing on Lord Browne’s review of higher education funding and student finance), Cable and Willetts are surely right in their critique of current higher education policy’s “heavy bias towards traditional full-time, three-year degrees for 18-year-olds” (one could add “studying away from home”).

To redress the balance, much faster progress is needed on implementing a funded credit-based system that will make learning more flexible and accessible, including student mobility across the further/higher education divide. In the UK, we have long agonised over accreditation, credit accumulation and transfer. Crudely, we have the systems, but we are very reluctant to use them (for a variety of reasons, of which employer reluctance is one and inter-institutional snobbery another).

Good teaching is under threat from the hyper-concentration of public research funding, but not quite in the way that Cable and Willetts suggest. Reputable studies have established that the level of selectivity in our system is dysfunctional, but discussions about the general value of particular types of university have led to an unhelpful dead end. It is absurd for Malcolm Grant, the leader of University College London, one of our few world-class “apex” institutions (there are significantly fewer of these than the Russell Group likes to claim), to describe the approach across the rest of the academy as “pile it high and sell it cheap”.

Urging institutions to be more imaginative in terms of admissions is also welcome, although history would suggest that such political cover disappears fast when the going gets tough.

In other areas, Cable and Willetts seem to have a worrying tendency to look for quick fixes and to evade the responsibilities of “policy memory”. Here are a few examples:

• shorter and more intensive routes

• “franchising” (as in the separation of teaching from awarding degrees)

• uncritical acceptance of employer groups’ estimates of the demand for graduates in various disciplines (the student market has proved more “intelligent” than we are often prepared to give it credit for).

The big picture is that as a system we are going to have to become messier, less precious, more flexible and significantly more cooperative: we are going to have to be more like one half of the North American system.

Politicians and commentators who look at the US generally fixate on one of two models: Harvard University’s or the California Master Plan. (Incidentally, both are in desperate trouble for differing economic reasons.) This polarity contains a fundamental principle, concealed by the “national-average” data published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and others.

A little less than half of American undergraduates attend four-year public or private residential colleges and universities, and a respectable proportion complete their degrees on time. Meanwhile, the rest follow a much messier route. They invariably complete their bachelor’s degrees in institutions other than the ones in which they started. They experience a mixture of full- and part-time study, earn while they learn and above all accumulate credit along the way. Because of the success of this messier system, about 60 per cent of the US population has serious experience of tertiary study, and in popular culture “college” is positively referenced and valued.

The UK system has to learn to emulate this. Sadly, in policy and funding terms and in relation to public perceptions of higher education, it is looking to lock in the wrong half’s features. Will the coalition have the ability to put aside internal differences and act positively to overcome this fault? As Cable acknowledges, many of the solutions lie with institutions, collectively and individually, not with the government. Will the leaders of the sector help, or simply seek to cling on to increasingly precarious sub-sectoral advantages?

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