Elitists hostile to needs of masses

January 5, 1996

And so the New Year begins where the old left off. The future of higher education is again being heavily contested, with both the "how many?" and the "who pays?" arguments well to the fore.

The media coverage of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service statistics on applications makes particularly depressing, and inaccurate, reading. There really is a very pernicious and aggressive strand to much of the reporting of higher education. It is a deeply hostile environment in which to try to build our sector.

A reduction in the number of applications this year would not be surprising for two reasons. First, UCAS has reduced the number of choices available to each applicant. Therefore to "stand still" in terms of year-on-year applications means a 25 per cent reduction in 1996 applications.

Second, the figures actually show that increasing numbers of applicants are waiting until they get their results before applying. It is known that there will be many places at almost every institution available in August and September, so why apply now? The fact that the sector itself cannot make the same move simply generates an enormous amount of bad press for it.

Neither of these points are referred to in the most recent press coverage. Rather, the figures are used to demonstrate an over-supply of higher education in the face of declining demand.

Presumably, the argument goes, the savage cuts in Government funding imposed in last November's Budget are therefore entirely justified and reasonable.

Moreover, it is the "new universities" which are again targeted for special attention. The institutions, their subject mixes, their degree programmes, the kinds of students they attract, are all criticised and ridiculed as part of the general attack on the widening of participation. According to these commentators, we have too many subjects, too few potential students.

The reality, of course, is very different. In common with many other institutions, the early application figures are increasingly irrelevant to Thames Valley University.

We receive applicants throughout the year as do many other institutions and an increasing number of applicants apply directly. For example, students studying HNDs and applying to top up a degree will not be part of the current UCAS statistics but do show up in the final statistics.

These are the sort of people who much of the press (and I wonder how many people in the sector?) do not really think should be in higher education at all.

Certainly the idea that you might not come in through the A-level route, but successfully complete other programmes as a way of building up towards a degree, has no place in an elite system which is designed to fail the vast majority of people simply by refusing them access.

And that really is the fundamental problem. We still have not come to terms with the fact that we are now in a mass system of higher education.

Too much of the sector, too many of its procedures, too much of the rhetoric that surrounds it comes from a previous model which was elitist, hostile to the needs and aspirations both of the country and of the people in it. It is not just the inaccuracies which sections of the media peddle which makes me so cross. It is the deeply offensive, class-ridden prejudices they promote. If people have the capability to benefit from higher education, why should they not have the opportunity to do so?

Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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