Diversity challenge

August 22, 1997

The university of the future

The overwhelming impression that comes from reading Dearing's Higher Education in the Learning Society is the familiarity of the issues involved even from half a world away. An increasing premium on knowledge and knowledge creation, the emergence of mass higher education systems, the continuing internationalisation of the professional workforce and its insatiable demand for elaborate, rapidly evolving skills, the impact of new teaching and learning technologies, the growth of education as an export industry and the cost of running universities are combining to make the management of higher education a primary touchstone of good government.

The Blair government is in such a powerful position politically that it may feel neither urgency nor fallibility. But no government can ignore the economic demands and pedagogical challenges now confronting universities. Nor can any government contemplate turning back the clock. Mass higher education is here to stay, with all its attendant opportunities and problems. The importance of equity, access and social justice is taken for granted in the UK and elsewhere, and society is emphatically the better for it.

Yet the fact remains that mass higher education costs far more than universities used to cost when they served a select few. It has become a major political issue because the size, growth and quality of the system now has serious implications for the public purse. For the universities themselves there are also other pressures. Students in a mass system constitute a far more heterogeneous learning community than traditional universities ever had to deal with. As the spectrum of motivation, expectation, educational preparedness and intellectual ability widens, teaching, learning, assessment and accreditation necessarily change. Across all the functions of higher education, the metamorphosis of exclusive, elite universities into inclusive, mass "systems" amounts to a great unfinished revolution.

The best universities will be those that defy the normative tendencies of national systems and retain the freedom to be independent, international institutions. The UK, like any other society valuing a seat at the first-world table, will cherish such institutions of world renown, respecting their need for a large measure of operational and strategic autonomy. But institutional autonomy, like international reputation and respect, has continuously to be earned, validated and defended, and no university can afford to ignore the deep financial, structural and philosophical contradictions that have preoccupied the Dearing committee.

How is the UK to maintain, enhance and pay for a world-class higher education system that is open to all those able to benefit from it? How are the universities to be funded if not largely from the public purse? In valuing the outcomes of a higher education system, what is the balance between public benefit and private good? What, if anything, should the individual users and private beneficiaries pay, and how should the charges be levied? As a mass higher education system emerges, what are the implications for quality? Can the traditional work practices, values, aspirations and expectations of the academic profession survive in the face of mass enrolments? How best can research be at once nurtured and nurturing within a mass higher education system? How may the most talented, best-prepared students be guaranteed world-class higher education in institutions and systems that are under mounting pressure from far broader, more variegated student constituencies? What kind of system, in Dearing's words, can "encourage and enable all students, whether they demonstrate the highest intellectual potential or whether they have struggled to reach the threshold of higher education, to achieve beyond their expectations"?

The blunt answer is that maintaining world-class higher education means paying for world-class universities. There is no viable funding model for securing such education on the cheap.

Universities, like any other institution, and academics, like any other profession, cannot work miracles with the loaves and fishes of inadequate funding. Governments under the twin pressures of fiscal restraint and higher education cost escalation are therefore obliged to explore private funding options. In one form or another, debates about the principle of "user pays" are international debates, and everywhere they spawn interesting economic public policy and philosophical analysis.

Yet the logic is irresistible. More has to be spent on higher education or the UK will fall behind the rest of the developed world; squeezing ever more out of taxpayers is poor politics; therefore, in Dearing's words, "individuals will need to take a greater share of financial responsibility for their own learning". This is a daunting public policy syllogism. There are votes to be lost here, but precious few, perhaps, to be won. Even a government as powerful as Tony Blair's becomes hesitant.

The Dearing report leaves little room for public policy compromise. Politics is as much about theatre as about logic. Confronted with the sheer lucidity of a Dearing, universities, vice chancellors, academic unions, student associations and their political masters all prefer to masquerade in the public spotlight. Governments and bureaucrats quite rightly talk of getting more for less, of auditing and public accountability; of placing the quality of university management under the public microscope to secure greater cost efficiency. Vice chancellors, academics and students hold their hands out, demanding increased public outlays and ignoring the fact that being right and being realistic are not always the same. It is as if there is a conspiracy to look everywhere except at the main issue, for that demands hard political and public policy decisions. Postponing or diluting the recommendations of a Dearing report are among the most understandable of all political accommodations.

Sir Ron evidently knows all this. Getting higher education policy and funding right will be a battle. "I have a personal worry," he wrote recently (THES, July 25), "now the committee has finished its work and I am let out to cultivate my garden, that the report will have no champion to fight its battles."

Yet for Britain's sake, it is to be hoped that the battle is fully joined and clearly won. Long-term national competitiveness is at stake. To quote Sir Ron once more, the battle is about the capacity of the nation "to sustain an economically viable economy and a cultured, inclusive society". For whatever its other characteristics, the future of the world is likely to be dominated by those with access to the best intellectual property and the highest quality of human resources. Accessing such things will involve the toughest international competition of all.

The UK higher education system is already involved in fierce international competition, not least with my own country and my own university. Dearing identifies the alluring opportunities of "a global marketplace in which UK higher education can compete". His report also recognises, conversely, that in this marketplace, it is already possible for higher education to be "offered remotely by anyone anywhere in the world, in competition with existing UK institutions". In searching for palatable compromises instead of endorsing the Dearing recommendations as a package, the Blair government must be extremely careful not to leave UK universities under-resourced and increasingly uncompetitive.

The serious competition never comes from just anyone. It will focus on the international educational export markets, where the most discriminating consumers in the world choose between national systems and individual universities. From cyberspace, too, it will come. Most formidably, the challenge to established campus-based universities will come from the international giants of the communications, information technology and multimedia industries - global providers, replete with capital, able to access outstanding international scholars and teachers, skilled in providing in situ student support simultaneously in many countries, and capable of brokering professional accreditation and recognition around the world. Quality in the resulting "global virtual universities" will be high, standardisation will create cost structures that are mightily competitive, brand recognition will be obtained, perhaps by embracing one of the great Ivy League institutions as a partner, or alternatively by migrating into higher education a dominant brand from the communications or computing industries.

To survive in such a world, traditional campus-based universities will have to re-invent themselves. They will have to offer students all the benefits the best virtual alternatives can muster and much more besides. The information super-highway will have to run through the teaching and learning heart of every great campus, and students will have to be as much at home in cyberspace as are their counterparts in the virtual university. Curricula will have to be truly international in conceptualisation, design, content, delivery and recognition. Without that, no value adding based on the face-to-face, human interactions of a spatial learning community will be sufficient to save it from the emerging competition. With it, the intellectual, social and cultural rewards of campus life are still likely to create the best learning environments of all.

The plural, environments, is important. Everything else in Dearing depends on the premise that a world-class higher education system involving mass participation must necessarily be highly diverse. There is no unrealistic commitment to any single, paradigmatic idea of a university or to systemic uniformity. The emphasis is on diversity. Mass higher education must serve increasingly diverse constituencies, functions and levels of educational preparedness. The idea that every university should pursue more or less the same mission, goals and aspirations and be funded on precisely the same terms is a recipe for mediocrity. Managing higher education on such a basis would be nothing short of public policy vandalism. As Dearing puts it, the UK needs "a diverse range of autonomous, well-managed institutions with a commitment to excellence in the achievement of their distinctive missions".

A higher education system inured to the research assessment exercises must already have a high tolerance to external management interference, so Dearing's emphasis that diversity and quality go hand-in-hand is particularly welcome. In a passage written with evident care, the report explains that it is "a national policy objective to be world class both in learning at all levels and in a range of research of different kinds". The aspiration to be world class is qualified by the words "at all levels" and "of different kinds". A recurrent and welcome emphasis in the report is that delivering world-class education means providing diverse educational services, not educational uniformity. Dearing advocates as "a conscious objective of national policy" the nurturing of "institutions of world renown within a wider university system that includes other institutions, whose role is to support 'regional or local needs'".

In a mass higher education system the wages of uniformity are systemic mediocrity, but the gift that diverse, autonomous universities can bequeath to a learning society is quality at all levels or, in Dearing's words, "excellence in the achievement of ... distinctive missions". The UK will remain one of the great centres of higher learning in the world if it can realise that vision.

Alan Gilbert is vice chancellor at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

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