Dear Secretary of State...

May 9, 1997

As David Blunkett arrives in Whitehall, what issues should be on top in his higher education in-tray? Those in the frontline offer advice

From: Martin Harris

Re:Expansion with flair

You take up office as a new era dawns for higher education. In the next century education must increasingly be a lifelong process, open to all. Universities are poised to play their part in the learning society. Now we need you to match our imagination and resolve with courage and commitment.

You share, we are certain, our vision of a knowledge-based society where investment in higher education helps fulfil individual potential. We trust your policies will build upon universities' proud track record of drawing on international and national networks to bring economic benefits to local communities. You will recognise, too, how much our productivity in teaching and research has grown and how significantly we have boosted our income from private sources.

We have already doubled the number of students we teach. Now we must expand further. To be a truly mass higher education system, the poorest must be better represented. This is rightly seen as a further challenge, and not just by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. Employers' organisations and potential students echo our call.

We need you to negotiate with us a new funding settlement to pay for what has already been achieved as well as for further expansion. The taxpayer can no longer fund the required expansion while maintaining the present quality of education. Over the past ten years funding per student has dropped by 35 per cent in real terms, while we face a backlog of Pounds 1.25 billion for essential maintenance and of some Pounds 500 million for priority research equipment. National and international comparisons demonstrate the deep relative decline of university salaries. Every day in campuses across the UK, these statistics translate into an intolerable pressure on our staff, students and facilities.

Imagination is needed. The old solutions can no longer deliver. The CVCP has shown how, if the funding system were reformed, access could be widened, future investment secured and fairness for all students achieved. We have proposed a new partnership with contributions from graduates and creative schemes to stimulate investment by employers. The universities' outstanding research achievements also depend on partnerships with government, industry and the great charities if they are to be further enhanced.

A difficult political nettle to grasp; but a failure of nerve would have far-reaching consequences for the nation's prosperity and betray the aspirations of those who continue to miss out on higher education.

Martin Harris, chairman-elect, CVCP.

From: Annette Zera

Re: Turning your passion into policies

You have an unrivalled opportunity to discover the college sector and let it fly. The Further Education Funding Council inspection programme demonstrates a hidden and undersold success story. Given a bit of encouragement, we can provide the country with the skilled, qualified, confident young people and adults that you have talked about during the election campaign.

We need some action and here is a ten-point plan: 1. Appoint a charismatic minister for further education who has a passion for colleges and what we do. A political leader.

2. Deal with the failure of the market. This will mean a radical rethink of the roles of the Further Education Funding Council, Training and Enterprise Councils and local education authorities. What is needed is regional and sub-regional collaborative planning and funding.

3. Fund post-16 education and training in colleges and schools in the same way but, whatever you do, do not fall for the line that the FEFC funding methodology is the answer. It is not. It is a planner's dream but a manager's nightmare.

4. Be clear about your priorities so that the sector can avoid muddles like the franchising debacle.

5. Forget about new schemes and initiatives. In fact scrap as many as possible. We need a coherent approach to education and training. So do not spend the windfall tax on yet another bright idea - use it for the capital and IT infrastructure investment that will carry us into the future.

6. Introduce a post-l6 qualification system to replace the current mess. There is no need for more reviews and enquiries, just put in place a sensible progressive curriculum and credit framework, linked to higher education (like that developed by the Further Education Development Agency) ASAP.

7. Keep your promise to abolish the 16-hour rule within the Job Seekers Allowance. And be radical - fund poorer students through their further education studies rather than leaving it to the discretionary whim of their local education authority. It will save money in the long term.

8. Commission a robust value-added measurement system that can be built into new curriculum, performance and funding models.

9. Incorporate the examination boards and/or regulate their pricing policies.

10.Implement the recommendations in the Tomlinson, Higginson and, soon, Kennedy committees.

In short, turn your passion into practical policies and pounds. And do it soon, please, before too many of us go out of business.

Annette Zera, principal, Tower Hamlets College.

From: Ben Pimlott

Re: Equalling the success of your radical forebears

Congratulations on your appointment to the key post in the new government. It is also the most testing. Education is now Labour's bed of nails, because of the firmness of the promise to do something about it.

In higher education, you will want to emulate - even perhaps to surpass - the achievements of the 1964-70 Labour government, which reshaped the nature and raised the quality of tertiary education in Britain more than any other administration this century. During those years, new universities were built, new polytechnics were set up, tens of thousands of young people who could not previously have contemplated degree-level study became eligible for grants, and a proliferation of new teaching posts lowered the average age of academic staff by a decade. On top of all this, the Wilson cabinet pressed ahead with the most imaginative scheme of all, the Open University.

Can new Labour do as much? You have acquired a far less promising legacy than Michael Stewart in 1964 - of universities squeezed, bureaucratic interference increased, student numbers forced up without commensurate funding, and little positive planning for the future. In one respect, however, there is a vital opportunity. Wilson inherited Robbins, and was committed to what it contained. You have inherited the prospect of Dearing - but do not have to accept its assumptions. Though you should think carefully about what it recommends, you have a chance to develop a radical momentum of your own.

Two short paragraphs in the Labour manifesto on higher education amount to a policy of "wait and see". Filling the blank sheet will not be difficult. Here are some do's and don'ts.

First, do not treat degrees and graduates as "products" to be manufactured as cheaply as possible: filling up universities as a way of massaging the unemployment figures is a false economy. Be wary of the dangerous syllogism, much in vogue among ministers and civil servants: "if new universities can get along with a particular staff-student ratio and funding per student, why shouldn't the rest?" It will be tempting to continue the process of dilution across the system to save pennies. Yet what has made British tertiary education something to be proud of has been the survival of personal contact and pastoral care. Seek to level up, not down: as in primary schools, so in universities, go for smaller class sizes, not bigger ones.

Second, cast your net wide in the search for ideas: do not simply rely on organised bodies like the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals or the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe for advice. The best scholars and teachers, with the greatest understanding of research and student needs, are often found outside such organisations.

Third, encourage a reduction in "quality control" paperwork, which tends to undermine academic freedom. Do not believe that high ratings necessarily reflect anything except an ability to manipulate the system. Consider the possibility that a department that produces one unusual book every six years might have more to offer than one that produces a dozen conventional books every three.

Fourth, be wary of schemes (like top-up fees) which make it harder for good students from poor backgrounds to go to elite universities, and tend to ghettoise weaker students in establishments that are already stretched to the limit.

Finally, do not use lack of money as an excuse for shelving reforms; but appreciate that money is the sine qua non of many important changes. Prepare for the moment when public funds are once more on tap, in line with the manifesto commitment to increase the proportion of the national income spent on education - and insist that universities get their whack.

Ben Pimlott, professor of politics and contemporary history, Birkbeck College, University of London.

From: David Triesman

Re: New government, new cuts?

In two months you will have the Dearing report, intended to guide higher education for the next 20 years. Our problems require attention now, or Dearing's recommendations will be irrelevant. Conservative spending plans and Labour statements that these are unchangeable will cut real higher education expenditure by 2 per cent and nearly 5 per cent in successive years. Higher education cannot sustain this rate of degradation.

The Labour party said repeatedly last year that the decade of year-on-year cuts had undermined the system and destroyed its morale. The OECD shows spending per student has plummeted to near the foot of the league table of developed nations. Further cuts would be wilful sabotage. It will strike you as bizarre that, in the area of education which has been a huge success, we face the gravest damage. New student opportunities, new cuts. New research, new decline. New staff, new redundancies.

You can make a difference - it can be better. Some steps would be taken today. First, in anticipation of the Dearing report, declare a moratorium on the projected cuts, assuring institutions that it is safe to plan on budgets equal in real terms to this year. Whatever funding stream is released by Dearing's recommendations will reinstate the capacity to widen student access and to develop quality research. Tell institutions to plan on a five-year, rolling basis, to cut loose from the ad hoc, hand-to-mouth systems that now dominate thinking.

See the prime minister today to say that there could be no better reason to draw on national reserves than to invest resources to replace exhausted and redundant scientific and technical equipment. Our researchers and students work with materials which are, in many places, thought risible by overseas visitors. Front-line science cannot be done in a science museum. Nor should it be attempted under leaky roofs. Remedial work is urgent and not only in schools.

And start to repair staff morale. The UK cannot afford so dispirited a sector. Some parts remain plagued with management styles pitilessly copied from Margaret Thatcher's macho gurus. Many parts suffer from increasingly insecure employment, which damages morale and the sense of intellectual adventure upon which academic freedom and progress are based.

All parts suffer dismal pay and there is overwhelming support for independent pay review. Treat us no worse than schoolteachers or medics. Fairness, not favours, as I remember someone saying.

David Triesman, general secretary, AUT.

From: John Akker

A look to quality not numbers

Lecturers are looking to you to provide a new impetus for higher education. The previous administration's policy of expanding student numbers would have been welcomed had it been accompanied by a commitment to sustain the quality of education. Economic regeneration and social development depend on well-educated individuals, not simply on more educated individuals.

Resources are needed to maintain quality levels. But we are also concerned that expansion has favoured only a segment of society. We need measures to promote participation rates in higher education of at least 40 per cent of 18 to 21-year-olds, with more support for under-represented groups.

You should also encourage partnerships between further and higher education to open up higher education on guaranteed high standards. Do not believe that FE can provide HE on the cheap.

And we want to see a Dearing-style inquiry for further education, so that that sector too can meet the educational challenges of the 21st century. The new government should also tackle the unacceptable decline in engineering, science and maths skills. You should spearhead a national task force with an integrated approach to promoting these skills.

Research opportunities should be opened up with a move away from the present elitist distribution of research funds. The new universities have played a pioneering role in innovative research and development, and we want you to give positive encouragement to their role. Staff and students need to be given a greater say in the running of the institutions, with safeguards for academic freedom and protection for whistleblowers. Lecturers also want to see measures to support their professional development and reduce stress, ill health and poor morale.

As an immediate step you should reverse the last secretary of state's decision to claw back on pension rights for members of the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme. This will reassure lecturers in the new universities and colleges of higher education.

But we also want you to tackle the reasons why lecturers are opting for early retirement. Natfhe, the lecturers' union, has done its own surveys of staff stress; it is now time for your department to mount a full occupational study of this problem, with recommendations for preventive action.

One reason for poor staff morale is their declining pay relative to other similar groups of public sector workers. Natfhe is asking for an independent pay commission to address the problem of salaries in higher education on a phased and sustainable basis.

John Akker, general secretary, Natfhe.

From: Sir Aaron Klug

Re: The funding imbalance

Congratulations on your appointment to one of the most important posts in the new government. There are few matters of greater significance for the long-term well-being of the United Kingdom than the education of its citizens.

The forthcoming Dearing report will ensure that higher education is prominent on your agenda in your early months in office. An imaginative response to its recommendations will set the tone for your tenure. Your response will need to meet many objectives, including increased diversity of provision and delivery of quality teaching in a research environment sufficient to meet national needs for highcalibre science graduates.

Science is vital to the economy, wealth and quality of life in the UK. It is a long-term endeavour and needs long-term support if it is to contribute effectively to the national wellbeing. The university sector is central to this process, both for advancing scientific knowledge and for training skilled scientists.

Many people will be looking to you to restore the effectiveness of the dual support system. This should provide two distinct, complementary streams of public funding for university research - funding councils in principle cover physical infrastructure, common services and the costs of core academic and technical staff, and research councils cover project-specific costs. This approach is highly valued.

But the two streams are now dangerously out of balance. The physical infrastructure is wholly inadequate, and staff time and technical assistance for exploratory work - a crucial investment in harnessing creativity - have all but disappeared. The solution is not another transfer of funds from the funding councils to the research councils, but a strengthening of the funding council stream and an insistence that projects supported by the research councils are fully costed and funded. Scarce resources must be used selectively. The research assessment exercise is a means for implementing this policy in respect of funding council support for research. However, it affects university research in many other, unintended, ways and we need an independent review of its overall long-term impact.

The higher education sector contributes to national, publicly determined goals by, inter alia, nurturing individual creativity. Freedom to experiment, at individual and at institutional level, is key. This calls for mutual trust between the sector and government and a fresh approach to accountability, rather than micromanagement.

Sir Aaron Klug, president of the Royal Society.

From: Matthew Freeman

Re: A minister of science

Britain has had a great scientific tradition, and we scientists and engineers hope that you will act to repair and capitalise on these strengths. A thriving science base is an essential foundation of the high-skill, high-technology economy that you made a theme of your campaign. Indeed, Britain is uniquely placed to become the "Laboratory of Europe", bringing major inward investment and an expansion of the high-technology job market. But unless you act now, this opportunity may slip away: scientists and companies will leave if you fail - the signs are already there.

Stick to your commitment to broaden A levels without reducing standards. It is absurd that on the verge of the 21st century 15 and 16-year-olds have to choose between literacy and numeracy.

Greater investment is needed in science. Many of our industrial competitors have recently committed themselves to large increases in government support for science. We realise that science is unlikely to be singled out for post-election largesse, but an acknowledgement that Britain should aim to commit a similar proportion of its wealth as others to research and development would show you to be serious. Industry, too, has underinvested in research and we hope that your corporate tax review will provide incentives to redress this.

Please understand that basic science must not be simply subservient to industry. Not only does that neglect its contribution to the quality of life, it is also the path to mediocrity and lack of innovation. Instead realise that fundamental science is the source of radically new ideas that can revolutionise the economy (think of the physics that spawned the microchip, and the double helical structure of DNA - the heart of biotechnology). Of course we need to exploit our discoveries, and academic science must communicate with industry, but neither is helped by making these links too strong. You have said the "decision to end effectively a separate science ministry was wrong". Just so. You should now appoint a cabinet minister for science.

Finally, scientists are not politically naive; we understand that improvements may be only gradual, but morale will improve rapidly with a positive government attitude to science and if your actions show you to be as committed to the science base as you say you are.

Matthew Freeman, of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, is writing in his capacity as an executive member of Save British Science.

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