Bigger, better and autonomy intact

March 13, 1998

ACROSS the British system of higher education there is a deeply-held conviction that academic freedom - the capacity to pursue ideas, including uncomfortable ideas, wherever they lead - is inextricably bound up with institutional autonomy - the capacity of institutions to choose their own destinies within a mutually assured framework of conventions and standards.

This is why the history of the sector taking responsibility for the academic terms of its own enlargement has been so critical. Before the "quality wars" of the past decade, this was one of our strongest claims to distinctiveness on the international scale, built on the "validating" or "awarding" universities of the 19th century, the London external degree, the "academic advisory committees" of the post-Robbins universities, the Council for National Academic Awards, and underpinned throughout by the uniquely British reliance on external examiners.

The Dearing committee was deeply conscious of this historical legacy and of our reputation as one of the most consistent and quality-assured systems in the world.

Simultaneously, it was assailed by a number of advocates of narrower views: that expansion would mean an inevitable drop in standards; that the rise of professional and vocational higher education (especially in the "new new" universities) has undermined the integrity of traditional, disciplinary-based higher education; and that it is no longer feasible or desirable for a system that has prided itself on its unity of purpose even to attempt to continue to work together in these ways.

Such advocates normally take one or both of two routes. Economically they urge that the market must rule: that an increasingly diverse system would, through the application of private funding, settle down into a Japanese or American-style pecking order.

This links with the case for "top-up" fees, whereby prestigious institutions and competitive courses would be able to test what premium support the market will bear. (Interestingly, few are in favour of root-and-branch privatisation, with the potential loss of the huge public investment that underwrites activities.) The other favoured route is regulation, invoking the power of the state to preserve the independence of some institutions by constraining all others.

The Dearing committee took a longer view, expressing a desire to see:

"Diversity within a framework where qualifications are widely understood, standards are high and respected, and the quality of teaching and student learning is among the best in the world."

The report went on to stress the consequences of abandoning such a goal:

"In the absence of the infrastructure and arrangements of the kind we propose, pressures for increased and direct intervention from outside the higher education system will intensify." (Higher Education in the Learning Society, 10.102).

Both the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, in their response to Dearing (A New Partnership) and now the government in Higher Education for the 21st Century, have responded positively to this vision. In particular, it is reassuring to hear the government conclude that "the higher education system as a whole should retain responsibility for the definition and setting of standards" and its call for "a reinvigoration of the external examiner system".

Other elements of new Labour's response to Dearing also reinforce the theme of disciplined diversity, not least their underlining of concerns about franchising and the improper invention and use of institutional titles.

In the spirit of the Dearing "compact", government has a major part to play, not least in ensuring that on the other side of the comprehensive spending review the institutions have the resources to deliver their contribution to the learning society. On diversity, standards and quality, however, government is appropriately and importantly trusting the sector to deliver the goods.

David Watson. Director of the University of Brighton and chair of the Universities Association for Continuing Education. Member of the Dearing committee

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