Enchant our sense not sentimentality

September 19, 1997

I have mixed feelings about the reconstructed Globe theatre. I support the project, but at a recent performance I was struck by the dangerous historical sentimentality of it all. This was a building for the 17th not the 21st century.

The actors were mixing production techniques evolved over 400 years with an architecture which is outdated. The plays have grown through history but the building has not.

The Globe project was inspired by an American. Rightly he has been praised. Rumour has it that at least one Oxbridge college is contemplating selling out to the Americans in order to survive the latest financial constringencies. If it did so would the result be the reverse of the Globe project? Would the influence of US higher education modernise our traditional system?

I imagine it might not. Sentimentality could well prevail and the college, like the Globe perhaps, could become little more than a pleasant diversion from the real world, a junior college abroad with some postgraduate studies; an educational tourist attraction.

One problem with the Globe is that it may have helped force the Royal Shakespeare Company out of London over the summer months and possibly hit the box office receipts at Stratford. Too much competition coming from an historical rather than a cutting-edge source could irreparably damage that which it seeks to enhance. Is the same going to be true for higher education?

Just as Dearing I failed to deal with the gold standard of A level, so Dearing II has failed to provide an adequate framework for an interactive, customised curriculum between secondary, further and higher education. It assumes with the young learner that barriers have to be crossed at the ages of 16 and 18.

The concept remains that, at certain ages, students should have attained similar standards. Is this really the philosophy of lifelong learning? Might it not be possible to dovetail the curricula so as to allow for different abilities within age groups and between subjects?

Then there is the financial issue. Business and commerce benefit from the graduates they employ, yet Dearing's compact with industry largely ignores an undergraduate responsibility. Is it beyond our capability to devise a taxation system of interactive charges and incentives encouraging industry to cooperate further with schools, colleges and universities in the development of the curriculum and the education and training of students?

Business was something known to Shakespeare. As a stakeholder in his theatre and company he balanced financial management with artistic endeavour. His plays were rarely sentimental, often confrontational. They questioned anachronisms and thereby developed an art form beyond the dramatist's own lifetime.

In higher education we have to think beyond the lifetime of particular Governments. We should not be lured into a sentimentality over our traditional institutions nor over assumed notions of pedagogy, quality and standard. There must be other answers if our universities are to be truly equitable; if they are to promote social stability and provide the service for industry and commerce required for economic growth.

This is the challenge to David Blunkett. He needs to take time, to look for a measured policy. It should not be restricted by anachronisms, nor confined by current financial pressures. It should rather consider progressive opportunities for higher education for all.

The country is looking not for the educational equivalent of a reconstructed Globe but an imaginative policy which will encourage commercial investment into a modern, equitable and diverse university system.

Michael Scott is pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University. He writes in a personal capacity.

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