Choices on election day and afterwards

April 11, 1997

Academic staff will vote overwhelmingly for a Labour Government according to the ICM poll commissioned by The THES. This intention does not, however, seem to be coupled with a vision of increased access and expansion. Further expansion of higher education gets the thumbs down, particularly among university staff but, more surprisingly, further education lecturers are not keen either. This response is independent of whether or not there would be extra money to pay for expansion.

What this may mean is widespread acceptance that there is not going to be more public money for higher education coupled with dislike for raising the necessary cash elsewhere. Three-quarters of the minority (34 per cent) who do want more expansion want it paid for by the government. There is little support (7 per cent) for expansion paid for by students and their families.

The impression given by the poll is one of exhaustion, of people who have been struggling, but in their view failing, to maintain standards in worsening conditions for an influx of students many of whom do not have the qualifications once expected for degree work. Vocational qualifications are not seen as comparable to A levels as a preparation for higher education.

In short, academics have had enough of doing more with less. Not surprising. In 1989, when the education minister, Kenneth Baker, removed restrictions on student numbers and raised home tuition fees to provide an incentive for recruiting, higher education responded with enthusiasm. To the government's surprise - and the Treasury's horror - numbers shot up. New types of students were attracted, new courses and forms of assessment developed.

What reward did academics get? Pay levels which steadily fell behind those of comparable groups including school teachers; the usual British carping that "more means worse" and an invasion of assessors, auditors and counters of publications demanding detailed documentation to prove that people were doing a decent job. No wonder there is now widespread support for a pay review body, or that so many academics see the House of Commons as a better way of earning a living, or that academics have had enough of expansion.

This gloom, is worrying if understandable. Not because further expansion of mainstream degree level education is needed. It may not be - at least until difficulties in further education and schools have been addressed. It is worrying because higher education is going to need all the energy and imagination it can command if it is to adapt to and help mould changes which can be expected under a new government.

This week the churches, in their report Unemployment and the Future of Work, have drawn attention to the priority all political parties are giving to courting the middle-class vote. Fear of those voters is what has driven the parties to push higher education off the election agenda by referring it to the Dearing committee. Higher education is one of the biggest middle-class benefits. The conspiracy of silence implies that higher education will be in the firing line after the election.

An incoming Labour government - and if academics have their way Labour will have a large majority - would be committed to helping 250,000 unemployed and unqualified young people into work and making a reality of lifelong learning. Just the sort of priority the churches would applaud as a modest beginning in the shift of attitude they want to see.

Faced with such priorities, higher education will have a choice: to help deliver those commitments with all the innovation and change that implies, or to withdraw into a narrower world where research and the teaching of a restricted entry of well-qualified full-time students dominates. Higher education got out of touch with the mainstream preoccupations of Labour governments during the 1970s and paid a heavy price. It would be a pity to risk the same fate again - particularly when support for Labour in the academic community is so strong.

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