Diversity - but only up to a point

August 11, 2000

Recognition that present policies may be distorting higher education's activities comes in this week's policy statement on diversity from the English funding council. This is most welcome and, taken with the council's study of accountability requirements, should provide the basis for a rethink of the way public money is distributed to higher education institutions and the way institutions are required to account for its use.

Present arrangements undoubtedly tend to reduce risk-taking in a number of ways. For example, institutions that embark on overseas ventures - such as those of Derby University in Israel (front page) - risk much more than time and money. They risk their reputation. The disenchanted are quick to blow the whistle if things go wrong, and politicians are all too eager to send in quality inspectors or carpet vice-chancellors in their role as accounting officers for speculating with public money.

Again, institutions that take risks by offering places to candidates lacking conventional qualifications are liable to have higher dropout rates, may face accusations of dumbing down and are almost bound to slide down league tables that measure institutions against the same criteria. League tables and performance indicators, as they become more refined, are also becoming more influential with potential students.

The funding council's document, while opening up important issues, also betrays the political limits within which this debate is framed. Diversity is not to be encouraged in quality and standards, funding for teaching and accountability. Yet universal requirements in these areas are arguably the main drivers of convergence. The funding council indicates the preferred route to greater diversity: "professional courses" (presumably meaning full-cost courses for business customers) and more spin-off companies and other commercial activities. These are apparently to be fostered as self-evidently desirable without consideration to the risks they may pose to universities' central purposes, risks outlined by Dorothy Zinberg (page 9).

Such money-making activities suit the government's agenda because they gear universities more closely to the economy. They also, as recent pilot studies have shown, subsidise teaching and research, thereby reducing the sense of obligation on the Treasury to fund universities adequately for their core work.

The council has launched a crucial debate. Those responding to it may want to look rather wider than the document's terms suggest.

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