Concentrate on what you do best

November 1, 2002

The success of the higher education 'system' lies in the individual strengths of its parts, argue Ted Tapper and Brian Salter.

British institutions of higher education are often described as belonging to a system as if they were all members of the same broad church. But this fragile idea is increasingly difficult to sustain for the system has always been a collection of varied interests in competition with one another. Moreover, it is critical for individual institutions to understand their real position in the tangled web of university governance. Without that understanding they are likely to be less effective in governing themselves in a manner that enables them to sustain and expand their particular strengths.

Undoubtedly the idea of a British system of higher education was a direct consequence of continuously expanding state intervention. Under the University Grants Committee, institutions deemed to be of university status were placed in a common administrative and financial framework.

The creation of the polytechnics in 1965 suggested that a contrasting layer of higher education was gaining public recognition. But it was not long before the funding-council model of governance emerged to incorporate the two traditions within an expanded university sector. There were always doubts as to whether the polytechnics embraced a model of higher education that was sufficiently robust to withstand the traditional appeal of the universities.

Institutions have developed their own internal status differentials, based on variables such as an institution's longevity and wealth, the backgrounds of its undergraduates, the prestige of its research tradition and the fame of its scholars. Even if the system is not strictly hierarchical, it is clearly internally differentiated.

As expected, the governance model for the system is shaped by what is politically possible. Thus it would be difficult to construct a model that explicitly prevented individual institutions from competing for core state research funding. Consequently, there is no bar on entering the research assessment exercise. It would also be difficult to focus inspections of teaching and learning on specific institutions, although in future it may be possible to treat some with a lighter touch than others.

The pressure to widen access is a clarion call for the system as a whole, even though everyone knows that the most sensible way to achieve it is to encourage more part-time students on vocationally relevant courses at their local institutions.

But although it may be politically difficult for the state to construct a model of governance that works in harmony with universities'

long-established internal differences rather than pretending that they do not exist, there is no reason why those who are responsible for governing individual institutions should be so constrained. After all, their imperative is to ensure the success of their individual enterprises, not enhance system goals.

Some will have learnt, especially in the light of RAE 2001, that it is not necessarily a positive use of resources to pour them into constructing an elaborate submission, while others will realise the pay-offs, intellectual as well as financial, from assisting local economic development. There are different income streams - for teaching, research and inputs into the local economy - and universities need to govern themselves in a manner that plays to their strengths to maximise their resources.

Although in the past the state has been prepared to work within political constraints that make it difficult to recognise system differentiation, there is every expectation that in the light of the post-RAE 2001 fracas, the model of governance will change. At the very least, the new model will seek to steer the institutions so they concentrate on what they do best. We look forward to a change of direction, because institutional strength and growth is more critical than debates about whether differentiation means more hierarchy and stratification within the system.

Ted Tapper is professor of politics at Sussex University. Brian Salter is professor of health services research at the University of East Anglia. A longer version of this article appeared in Higher Education Quarterly .

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