Dearing: lighten the gloom, please

January 10, 1997

The mood of pessimism in higher education has hardened noticeably in the past three years. Academics interviewed for The THES's latest survey (page 8) are even more concerned at the damage student hardship is doing to their academic performance than they were three years ago, and are also alarmed by what they see as a fall in the United Kingdom's international standing in higher education.

Hardly surprising then that the proportion of academics favouring further expansion seems to have slipped from near universal to less than two-thirds and that more than two-thirds oppose charging students for tuition. Indeed, the surprise must be that more than one in five overall, and more than one in three heads of department and above, favour charging students despite the financial pressures they are already under.

With more than half the academic community convinced that standards have fallen, particularly over the past five years, there is a substantial degree of scepticism over whether the academic community can solve the problem itself. A third think higher education cannot be trusted to exercise control over the quality of its own work.

Nor does research selectivity attract majority support - not surprisingly perhaps, since it is a policy from which most academics would lose. And our research was carried out while departments were waiting to find out their own rankings, perhaps a nervous time for even the most confident of researchers.

It is always easier to see what is wrong than it is to achieve agreement on what is to be done about it. No one can know what will work, while many can see the snags in any conceivable plan. But this survey confirms that the Dearing committee must come up with some broadly acceptable prescriptions for tackling the encircling gloom. Action is necessary to halt the present slide into demoralisation and impoverishment.

The demoralised state of higher education is especially startling given its apparent success by any objective measure. Just last year, after all, the research assessment exercise showed that there are thousands of capable researchers in all types of university. The Nobel Prize committees found supreme excellence in two British academics for the first time in years - one an economist at a medieval university, the other a chemist in a 1960s one. And although the task remains incomplete, the teaching quality assessment process is throwing up few unsatisfactories and many satisfactory and excellent ratings.

Perhaps the problem in part is that all these assessment procedures have turned academic life into an inward-looking and self-examining business in which internal peer assessment is the benchmark. Being regarded as satisfactory by colleagues who work with the same underfunded libraries, leaking buildings and invisible budgets as one does oneself is hardly a vote of confidence if one's real competitors are in Yale or Canberra. To this should be added the argument, repeated indefinitely by the unions but no less true for that, that massive expansion of higher education, in student numbers and by other measures, has not been accompanied by rising rewards for staff, in terms of money or even steady jobs. The contrast with the private sector is stark to the point of satire.

This means that two people now have to get it right: Sir Ron, and the next Chancellor of the Exchequer. The vital issue of funding student tuition has to be got right, especially if expansion is to resume. And people in higher education, our survey shows, correctly welcome new forms of funding for higher education, provided they are subject to proper democratic procedures to ensure their consistency with academic aims. But most such funding is enabled by state spending, which is why even departments with big private funding are keen to have good research assessments. Better paid people with more security, better facilities and more esteem are vital to the future of higher education. The organisational structure has to be right, but it will need the Government to brandish the cheque book if the reforms Sir Ron is likely to propose are to succeed.

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