End of Labour honeymoon?

September 19, 1997

In our second of our series recalling the big issues in the Dearing debate John Ashworth considers university management

IT IS time to get back to basics. The primary job of the committee of inquiry into higher education chaired by Sir Ron Dearing was to recommend to the government a funding regime that would enable about one half of the population to receive from the universities the education and training they will need if the United Kingdom is going to have that quantity and quality of "human capital" that economists agree is going to be necessary for success in the next century.

The committee did not do a bad job but the Government promptly rejected its proposals in favour of something so half-baked that it had to be modified as soon as it was announced. Education secretary David Blunkett's present proposals will do nothing to provide either the students (especially the poorest) or the universities (especially the best) with the extra resources they need so desperately. There is nothing more important than the Cabinet persuading him and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone to reconsider Dearing's recommendations on finance.

But there are many more areas where careful thought is going to be needed by drafters of the white paper. My three candidates for the most important second-order issues are as follows: First, those sections of the Dearing report that deal with the organisation and support of research. These reintroduce the binary divide but with the all-important difference that now the discrimination will be between departments within institutions rather than between universities and polytechnics. This will place a severe stress on the management of those institutions, and they will be the majority, who will have to cope with the tensions between departments whose primary role is teaching and those who will still be able to aspire to being competitive in research.

My preferred solution would be that adopted by Salford University whose research and graduate college provides a supportive and enabling structure of proven effectiveness. Doubtless there will be alternative solutions adopted by other institutions with a different ethos. Those that dither will rapidly lose their best researchers to those that manage things effectively.

Second, managers will also be challenged to make a success of Dearing's recommendations about improving the effectiveness of teaching. In the past decade the differential funding of research (but not teaching) has made it hard for universities to give the recognition that Dearing's proposal for an Institute for Teaching and Learning implies for those who wish to be professional teachers. The suggestion that those who choose not to be entered for the research assessment exercise should be rewarded (bribed?) with a Pounds 500 grant suggests one very helpful way forward that I hope the white paper will endorse. But I doubt whether this will be enough to cope with the inevitable increased consumer pressure that fee-paying students will exert. Coping with a combination of student pressure from below with a beefed-up Quality Assurance Agency from above should make vice chancellors feel they are earning their fancy six-figure salaries.

Third, there are the recommendations for more regional differentiation that will receive a powerful boost from the political pressure for constitutional change in Scotland, Northern Ireland and possibly in Wales and the English regions too. Vice chancellors will play a key role in mobilising their institutions behind the development of their regions and will thus have to manage the tension between what is considered, at a national level, a suitable level of resource for their university and what their region will expect them to deliver.

At the national level there will continue to be pressure for a more highly differentiated funding structure, especially for research, but if students increasingly live at home and commute to their nearest university then the regional pressures for equality of treatment will inevitably grow.

Ministers might also consider the degree to which they, rather than vice chancellors and their senates and councils, wish to be involved (implicated?) in managerial issues at all. British universities have prided themselves on their autonomy but it has become increasingly evident over the past 15 years that this has become something of an illusion. In many of his recommendations Dearing has reinforced the trends towards de facto nationalisation of the universities and the creation of a national further and higher education service. Do ministers really want this and is it compatible with their aspirations towards a "knowledge-based society" organised, politically, on a more devolved basis?

The universities and their staffs have been very patient over the past decade when they have delivered all that has been asked of them without much recognition or any financial reward. It might be foolish of the government to assume that they will not notice what is going on. New Labour, Mr Blair and the Government are still very popular in the universities. Will the white paper mark the end of the honeymoon? And if it does will it matter? British society has become much more "European" in the past decade - think of our attitude towards food, public displays of emotion and the constitution. It would be sad if we added a disaffected intellectual class to that list.

John Ashworth is chairman of the board of the British Library.

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