ONE EFFECT of the Dearing inquiry is that at last we are beginning to see some serious debate about the fundamental purposes of higher education and its relationship with culture, society and the economy.
The issues are not new. It is a relief to turn from contemporary talk of "dialogic capacities" and "discursive competences" to some of the classic texts: the Edinburgh Review articles of 1808-11. Newman's Idea of a University (1873) and, from a different educational context, Ortega y Gasset's Mission of the University (1930). The recurring theme is the need to clarify the relationship between "liberal learning" and professional or vocational preparation.
The context changes but the basic issues and polarities remain the same. On one side, the Training and Enterprise Council demands that universities have a prime responsibility to meet the skill needs of local employers echo Sydney Smith's insistence in 1809 that the only "measure I of dignity in intellectual labour (is) usefulness". On the other side, those who proclaim the benefits of an induction into the rigours of a traditional discipline, for its own sake, echo Smith's critics who argued that it was no part of a university education to allow "a man I to be usurped by his profession I his ideas all to be put into a gown or uniform".
What separates earlier debates is the assumption that, whether directly or indirectly, university education is preparing the student for a lifetime career. Ortega y Gasset took it for granted in 1930 that universities were very largely places of professional preparation for occupations that individuals had chosen as their lifelong "destiny". Contemporary discussions are dominated by the assumption that few people will have a lifelong professional destiny and that, even if they do, the nature of the profession to which they have committed themselves is likely to change.
An important change has taken place in the way we regard preparation for adult life. The new concern for key or core skills is a recognition that the old arguments about a liberal education still hold. This concern for habits of thought and action, learning that goes beyond the acquisition of knowledge, and the will and ability to shape one's own learning, is a common thread running through debate about future provision. It embraces academic and vocational learning and the wide range of provision now available. It legitimises and links the single subject degree courses, interdisciplinary courses, and courses designed for professional and vocational preparation. All can, and should, meet demands for "key skills", even if by different means and under a different name.
This is particularly helpful in locating the newer vocational courses, which continue to sit uneasily in some universities, within the wider provision. It gives to higher education a distinctive role in the development of these courses, alongside professional bodies, employment sector organisations, and the awarding and regulatory bodies responsible for national vocational qualifications. Higher education institutions have a responsibility to ensure that vocational courses provide students with opportunities to extend their capacity to learn. Professional bodies have a responsibility to work with employment sector organisations to ensure that there is appropriate and coherent provision of qualifications. Awarding and regulatory bodies have a responsibility to strengthen the links between their provision and related qualifications.
A coherent framework tied to an underlying rationale for the whole of higher education will be brought much closer by the emergence of new and more flexible criteria for National Vocational Qualifications. These will need to recognise that there may be a variety of routes to that goal. They will need to recognise that higher education can make a major contribution to these routes and also to level 4 and 5 NVQs themselves. It will also be brought closer by a new partnership between the bodies with an interest in higher level vocational education: professional bodies, higher and further education institutions, the network of national training organisations, NVQ awarding bodies and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the new regulatory body for non-higher education-accredited higher vocational qualifications.
It is urgent to bring vocational qualifications into a coherent relationship, sector by sector, recognising that there are different routes to the same goal of a society full of occupationally competent, flexible and reflective individuals, respected for their distinctive but different contributions. There is also an urgent need to relate this goal to a shared rationale for the whole of higher education. If we achieve this, we will have begun to articulate a vision for a world of mass higher education which prepares students for rapidly changing employment and continues to offer the essence of Newman's ideal of liberal learning.
Nicholas Tate is chief executive designate of the Qualification and Curriculum Authority.