Diversify to survive

June 4, 2004

How can UK universities adapt to global market forces, ask Ted Tapper and David Palfreyman

The UK government may be concerned with expanding participation in higher education, but national pressures for change need to be sensitive to the international context and cannot develop in isolation, no matter what some may think. The question is how national systems will adjust to cope with growing globalisation.

A diverse, stratified, hierarchical (but possibly "joined-up") system of higher education seems the most realistic response, given the increasing pressures on funding due to demographic changes. The bureaucratic impulse of the state may be to seek uniformity, but the market favours diversity.

What implications does this have for the British higher education system? The process of rapid expansion in undergraduate numbers will have peaked.

Growth is still likely but at a slower pace and embracing segments of the population older than the traditional 18-to-22 cohort. It will also be more diverse in terms of social class, and social diversification will be focused on post-1992 universities and higher education programmes in colleges of further education.

The student experience will splinter further: part time versus full time, campus versus home-based residence, traditional courses versus new degree programmes, and even attendance in new "for-profit" institutions.

There will be a trade-off between expanding and diversifying access and securing high completion rates, with the former prevailing. Just as completion of an undergraduate degree will become an increasingly protracted process, never to be achieved in some cases, so successful undergraduates will seek vocational or professional qualifications to gain an edge in the job market.

It is difficult to imagine how the fees cap proposed in the higher education bill will persist. But there will be pressure to ensure that universities do not exclude the poor. Thus, we can expect state grants and institutionally provided financial packages for poor students. The issue is whether we will have more or less equity. Ironically, too much stress on equity could result in canny middle-class families heading for US private liberal arts and Ivy League universities.

The role of academics is likely to become increasingly specialised. The idea that they are capable of, and interested in, pursuing administrative responsibilities will decline. We predict no neat division between research-led and teaching-only universities, but there will be sharp differences at the two ends of the continuum (a smallish research-led end and a much larger, teaching-only end). Most British universities will have pockets of "research excellence" within a teaching profile that moves steadily towards postgraduate studies with a large taught MA element composed predominantly of non-UK students.

The latter development is the more likely if the proposed cap on undergraduate fees prevails. It is also likely that the individual academic role will grow more polarised between teaching and research, as universities make decisions about maximising their research strengths. As managerialism trumps collegiality in governance terms, so the academic labour force will be ever-more casualised as higher education is commodified.

The purpose of universities will change as teaching and research become a means to another end, such as regional development. Universities are likely to become selective in embracing new goals or about where these are incorporated. University institutions may come to share the same letterhead but have little else in common.

The US is generally seen as the model for UK higher education. It is the first mass model of higher education that combines a range of diverse institutions and, given its size and influence, it tends to create global trends rather than respond to them. But political pressures over fee levels and funding may push the US system close to the "Anglosphere" nations, as they move towards the US model via marketisation.

Whether mainland European systems follow may not be clear by 2010, but by 2020 our vision is for higher education systems to be either converging under increasing financial pressure in the gloom of the Bermuda Triangle or basking in the sunny Azores as an expanding worldwide industry.

Ted Tapper is emeritus professor of politics at Sussex University, and David Palfreyman is bursar of New College, Oxford. A fuller version of this paper can be found at http:///oxcheps.new.ox.ac.uk/

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