Central planning agency need not rule out diversity

October 26, 1995

Your front page headline "Call for Central Control" and your main leader (THES, October 20) deal unfairly with the arguments in the report Higher Education in a Learning Society, which has six chapters, only one of which appears to have been read by The THES.

The main misrepresentation of the leader is that it asserts that one of our recommendations is that "change should be forcibly imposed by a central planning agency". If any such recommendation had been made, then I too would find the document "alarming". But the words "forcibly imposed" appear nowhere in the text and have been introduced by The THES.

The report argues for planning and not control and uses the language of influence, encouragement and incentives. To quote from the report: "Central planning must allow for creativity and diversity when determining priorities and funding; and institutional autonomy must respond to national needs and policies while defending internal democracy and disinterested criticism" (p20). Balancing these conflicting objectives is a delicate task, which is far removed from your inaccurate and emotive language.

The key argument in favour of a central planning agency is not even mentioned, namely, that "there is at present no public body which has the responsibility to advise government on the future of higher education" (p19). Neither the funding councils nor senior academic committees like the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals exercises a planning role and the present Government pursues a strategy of allowing the market to dictate levels of education and training, with all the failures attendant on that approach.

There is an obvious need for such a body to represent all the main stakeholders and to sharpen up policy options and priorities; it would also be charged with developing a strategy to cope with the acute problems now facing the academic profession of recruitment, training and pay. These are some of the issues discussed at length in chapters by Ewart Keep and Ken Mayhew, and by A. H. Halsey, Rob Wilson and David Robertson, none of which was mentioned in your leader.

The THES also gave the impression that all the participants in the seminar have signed up to the policy recommendations listed in my introduction. It is, however, clearly stated (on p4) that the introduction "is a personal account for which the editor alone should be held responsible". As more than 30 senior managers, policy-makers and researchers took part in the seminar, it would have been naive of me to expect, and false to claim subsequently, a non-existent consensus.

The report presents a range of possible futures for higher education and, for instance, David Robertson argues (on p55) the case for a measure of de-planning.

In short, your headline and leader may seriously mislead readers, whom I ask to suspend judgement until they have had the chance to read the whole report for themselves. It is available from me, c/o School of Education, at a cost of Pounds 12.50.

Frank Coffield

Economic and Social Research Council School of Education University of Durham

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