Vulnerable fields can be saved by sharing expertise nationally, says David Vincent
The law of unintended consequences was promulgated by Robert Merton in 1936. He identified the first three causes of the law as ignorance, error and imperious immediacy of interest.
The first two conditions are unknown to higher education policymaking, unlike the third - which has much to answer for. It threatens to defeat all attempts at efficient reform in the sector.
The issue of strategically important and vulnerable subjects is a case in point. There has been no plan on the part of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Department for Education and Skills or any individual university to deprive the country of graduates in disciplines vital to its economic and social development.
Instead, the strategy of concentrating research funding in high-rated departments has intersected with the promotion of student choice in ways that have forced hard decisions on vice-chancellors faced with the imperious immediacy of balancing their budgets.
In turn, Hefce's response to the anxieties of the DfES about the emerging pattern of provision has been hampered by the jealously protected right of universities to pursue their own interests.
The preferred solution to this dilemma has been to transfer the task to the regions that provide some kind of structure for voluntary collaboration.
But universities do not always leave their imperious interest outside the door when they meet with local competitors. There is no guarantee of a coherent or comprehensive programme of change emerging from this route. We need a way forward that reconciles the reality of university autonomy with the urgency of strategic development.
The concept of the national has to be rethought. We now know the wrong way to do this. The UK e-University was an attempt to set up an infrastructural resource independent of existing institutions that suppliers and customers could make the choice to buy into.
In the end, most universities and almost all students found it in their interests to ignore it. Better to start with what works on a national basis in terms of provision, quality and demand and explore new ways to connect it with needs of individual institutions.
Last week the Open University, with Hefce's support, convened a conference of universities interested in engaging with its curriculum and technical resources to enhance the range and quality of teaching in important areas.
Voluntary and national forms of consortia were explored. Proposals included establishing new part and full-time degree structures in the physical sciences, making part-time material available for use in full-time programmes in modern languages and developing online programmes in Chinese and Arabic, combining an OU learning platform with expertise in other universities.
The ambition is creative rather than defensive. The consortia will seek to stimulate and respond to demand by uniting specialised knowledge with efficiencies of scale. The notion of establishing a national grid of pedagogic resources that institutions can draw on and develop is also a response to the principal unintended consequence of the Higher Education Act. In pursuit of the imperious interest of university advocates of top-up fees a wall has been erected between full and part-time provision at just the moment when the system requires increasing flexibility.
Thinking nationally requires us to overcome the threatened development of two unequal higher education economies.
David Vincent is pro vice-chancellor for strategy, planning and external affairs at the Open University.