Cut off at the pass

March 8, 1996

Sir Ron Dearing this week describes the Robbins principle that "courses of higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so" as a tremendous principle, perhaps even one worth fighting for.

But it is, of course, an entirely circular principle depending on sliding definitions of ability and attainment. There are no clearly defined levels of attainment for entry to higher education. Two A levels, three A levels, General National Vocational Qualifications level 3, access and foundation courses, relevant prior learning, are all used as qualifications to admit students, but acceptance alone (on whatever grounds) is the only qualification needed for free tuition and access to grants and loans.

Nor does the number of places depend on numbers qualified or willing to pursue higher education. It has for the past few years been set arbitrarily by a Treasury intent on controlling costs.

Viewed against today's reality, the Robbins principle could take on a very different aspect from the idea of open access normally associated with it. The leaks and rumours that are preparing the way for publication of Sir Ron's study of 16-19-year-olds qualifications suggest that there may be a tightening up of A levels. "Easy" subjects may disappear, numbers of people entering for A level may be restricted (though heavens knows how) and extra subjects may be required for a new advanced national diploma distinct from a new baccalaureate-style national general diploma for 18-year-olds with a more vocational bias.

If the rumours are correct here is a defined level of attainment in the making which could be used apparently to resurrect the Robbins principle while actually restricting numbers.

If that were done, it might also seem a practical possibility to fight also for another principle Sir Ron clearly holds dear: free tuition. (This however would be a departure from Robbins's ideas. In his day fees were heavily subsidised - and therefore low - but were subject to a means test. He recommended they be raised to 20 per cent of institutions' expenditure.) The idea of re-restricting "university" education to a smaller group is seductive to many, perhaps particularly to those who themselves used hard-won higher education to achieve jobs and positions in life far removed from those of their families - as did Sir Ron. It has for a couple of generations been the agent for social mobility. Expansion of opportunity has therefore brought anxiety about the prospect of degrees being devalued and the experience of gaining a degree being debased.

Hence the emergence of two preoccupations of the Higher Education Quality Council. One concerns the concept of "graduateness", which purports to be about skills and competences, but can seem to have more to do with social grooming - communication skills, ability to work in a team, right tie, right accent, right on.

The other concerns tutorial support for students, the once-upon-a-time hallmark of the British university system. The HEQC's report, published this week, shows how far tutorials have fallen victim to increased numbers and decreased funding. Only in the preferentially funded confines of Oxford and Cambridge does personal contact between tutor and student still flourish on any scale. If we cannot afford to provide it for all, should we none the less continue to make sure it survives for some?

It is possible to see how the idea of a renewed binary line and a smaller university system could emerge. The outline was discernable in Wednesday's Lords debate. It would buy off many of the critics of expansion. It would solve the problem of where research should be located. It would deal with the worries of those who fear a levelling down of the best.

Such proposals would, of course, be accompanied by sweeping plans for what might be described as an improved and expanded polytechnic system with large parts of further education rolled into higher education and entry qualification set at national diploma level; with loans (and a standard level of fees) for all; courses nationally accredited with units transferable between institutions; lifelong access; students living at home and studying locally; learning accounts boosted by payments from employers - all the things the posher universities find hard to stomach and will resist having imposed on them, but which the newer accommodate with enthusiasm.

Some such deal may seem the line of least resistance - and Sir Ron is about minimising resistance. But would it be right?

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