California dreaming

February 6, 2004

UK higher education faces a far more fundamental problem than top-up fees, writes Trevor Smith

The higher education bill sneaked through its Commons second reading with a minuscule majority and its supporters were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. While there will doubtless be further attempts to overturn or amend some of its major provisions during the remaining stages, these are likely to be resisted by the government.

Rebel Labour MPs have had their best opportunity to reverse the policy of deferred and variable fees and it is unlikely the same degree of resistance can be mounted again. In the House of Lords, the bill will receive a fair wind, given the pro-Russell Group attitude prevailing among peers, though there will be dark mutterings about the role of the proposed access regulator.

Supporters and opponents can, however, agree that the bill marks a significant turning point. For the first time, market principles, albeit it ever so gently, are being introduced into the provision of tertiary education in England. Rebels secured enough concessions to ensure that the bill falls short of the government's original plans: indeed, the total sums raised by fees will be less than universities need for adequate funding.

One effect of this shortfall will be ever more overseas students being recruited and fewer places reserved for home students.

Differential fees potentially introduce a greater diversity in course provision and more market-driven competition. But capping fees at £3,000 a year for the next decade, as the government has been forced to do, severely limits this development.

Looked at another way, though, the bill could also be seen as largely continuing the traditions of successive government policy. The so-called mixed-market model is still apparent. That term always overdignified reality. In practice, this has meant governments tinkering with and patching up the tertiary education system over the past 30 years or so. No attempt has been made to rigorously think through a comprehensive and coherent policy for British higher education. Instead, there has been status inflation by which first colleges of advanced technology and then polytechnics became universities. Later, goals for participation rates were set seemingly arbitrarily. Neither the relationships between the different groups of higher education institutions - clearly identified in the distinct factions within Universities UK - nor the goals set have ever been officially examined and articulated.

I, for one, have favoured giving university status to most higher education institutions. What I decry is the lack of any codified delineation between them. Letting them develop their own "missions" just leads to the random patchwork that third-level UK education comprises.

The resulting mishmash satisfies no one. Research centres of international excellence are inadequately funded, teaching everywhere is underfunded and new universities, which are at the forefront of expanding access, are buffeted by contradictory funding policies.

Vocationalism has become a dominating theme - the liberal arts are being inexorably transferred to the University of the Third Age. Meanwhile, the University of Industry and the NHSU are dreamt up, again with little thought. The one great initiative that has proved to be a pioneering world-beater is the Open University.

Logically, finance ought to be considered alongside or after the design of a coherent scheme. California provides a good model. The state-wide system of a few major university campuses such as Berkeley, many more state universities such as San Jose, and widespread provision of local community colleges that offer two-year foundation degrees forms the sort of pattern the UK should emulate. Another Robbins-style inquiry is needed to devise such an integrated system for the 21st century.

Trevor Smith is a Liberal Democrat life peer. He was vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, 1991-99, and taught at California State University, Los Angeles, in 1969.

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