Cutting the red tape to catch the tigers of the east

August 1, 1997

By opting for more regulation, the Dearing committee missed its chance to improve UK higher education, says Robert Taylor

Sir Ron Dearing told vice chancellors last week that if the United Kingdom was to be successful against its major competitors in North America and East Asia, it would have to ach-ieve similar levels of participation in higher education. What his committee seems to have missed, however, is the fact that the vibrancy and effectiveness of higher education in these countries is down to the diversity of institutions which exists there, due to a genuine market for higher education.

Support for a number of private universities ensures that the dead hand of government regulation and bureaucracy does not stifle creativity and undermine academic freedom. Our competitors acknowledge that it is the market in ideas, innovation and resources which en-sures the quality of each educational institution. Furthermore, they have not taken the route of imposing national "quality assess-ment and assurance" regimes. These seek to confine in a straitjacket the highly diverse activities of a variety of educational institutions which are needed to serve an equally diverse and changing society.

The concept of setting national tariffs for tuition and uniform national "standards" for degrees would be laughed out of court not only as impossible, but also as causing the undermining of the maintenance of academic standards in a system that is responsive to educational and economic requirements now and in the future.

Our state-funded universities are increasingly managed as if they were firms in a nationalised industry. Their theoretical autonomy is hemmed in by regulatory regimes created as a substitute for market-forces. But as we have seen from the declining standards in secondary education during the past decades, such attempts at national inspectorates and increasing numbers of central "guidelines and incentive schemes" drive down standards to the lowest common denominator rather than allow institutions to compete in terms of quality and cost.

The central implication of the Dearing report is the theme that there is one idea of how education should be provided, which must be applied to all. OFUNI will be next. Meanwhile, in the dynamic economies of east Asia, such as Malaysia, the state system of higher education is being dismantled and competition fostered.

Is there any other major economic and social activity we imagine we should organise in the way Dearing proposes for our universities? Try this idea. We all know that every company requires a good accountancy service. But accountancy is expensive. So why not control its costs and ensure that all get equal treatment by establishing a national funding council for accountancy? Each firm would be paid the same rate for the work but compete for customers.

To ensure that standards did not slip owing to the absence of genuine competition, a national accountancy inspectorate, managed, say, by a committee of the great and good in the profession, would organise inspections that would be rated by members of other accountancy firms for quality. League tables of accountancy firms would be published.

Such an idea would be thought ridiculous for flying in the face of commonsense. Why then do we not grasp the nettle of the future of higher education - which is how to let our universities thrive, diversify and serve the community? Dearing ignores this possibility, though. But an hypothecated tax on potential future earnings does not make a market. It is illusory to believe that students will feel they have any real choice and control over their education when we have a system of university funding that establishes another central agency (the Student Support Agency) to allocate funds to universities in lieu of students making direct payments to the institutions - using their own or their parents' money, or scholarship or loan funds.

The central agency has no concern as to how the funds are used except in an accounting sense. The student sees his or her contribution as postponed, perhaps indefinitely. It is education on the never-never. Rather than seeing higher education as a personal investment, as it is in East Asia and North America, it remains an amorphous social good.

Universities will continue to behave as if the state were a monopoly purchaser to which they have to conform, rather than empowering the student who may pay for the education they want long after they receive it.

Dearing missed the chance to re- turn to first principles and examine how a genuinely open and responsive society can ensure there is appropriate education for all who can benefit. If Robbins had recognised the consequences for higher education which the past 20 years have created, would he have endorsed Dearing? Only if he believed corporatism was superior to genuine competition in a society of individuals who know what is best for themselves.

Robert Taylor is vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham and former pro-director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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