Ex-polys should ignore the jeers and take a bow

June 28, 2002

The tenth anniversary of the founding of the new universities is upon us. Stand by for a rash of dismissive speeches and articles about degrees in surf science and golf management. Except, of course, golf management is studied at the highly respectable Birmingham University, not at the former polytechnics that will be the object of the critics' scorn. In other words, it is higher education that has changed over the past decade, not just the roll-call of universities.

The new universities have led the way in the advent of mass higher education, as they did as polytechnics, but convergence has come from both ends of the system. Government incentives and student demand have led the old universities into uncharted vocational territory at least as much as the newcomers drifted in the opposite direction in the early 1990s.

To this extent, the creation of a single higher education system could be seen as a predictable failure. Kenneth Clarke, who oversaw the reform as Conservative education secretary, defends the outcome, but his blueprint envisaged more diversity than the system delivers - and much more than we are likely to see when its 20th anniversary is reached.

In an interview with The THES as the reforms were going through Parliament, Mr Clarke held out the prospect of open competition for research funds, but predicted that an unknown number of (presumably new) universities would specialise in teaching. Students would think no less of those that decided, however unwillingly, to abandon research. Funding council allocations would ensure that institutions stuck to their missions. Of course, the reality turned out to be rather more complicated. One of the shortcomings of the 1992 reform was the failure to address what constitutes a university. Whether because of the value they place on research or, more probably, because of the prestige that goes with it, students and employers do think less of universities with limited research. Academics certainly do. As a result, the single-mission university has been resisted and will continue to be.

Neither have ministers or funding councils been able to control mission drift. But, after a questionable start, the new universities cannot now be accused of trying to ape their older rivals academically. The trend away from sub-degree work may be a source of regret, but recent investment is firmly targeted at vocational areas. What the traditionalists fail to recognise is that, in the modern labour market, vocational means media studies as much as civil engineering. Universities cannot afford to ignore market pressures.

Without the responsiveness of the former polytechnics, the dramatic expansion of higher education would have been inconceivable and the social make-up of the student body would be even more exclusive. But could the new universities have made this progress just as easily with their old titles, encouraging greater diversity into the bargain? The evidence suggests not. Once the polytechnics had gained their independence, mission drift was inevitable and, in some cases, desirable. A certain amount of expansion would have taken place however higher education was organised, but recent experience shows that students have become increasingly status-conscious. The polytechnics were already finding their titles a handicap overseas and, in the era of tuition fees, problems would surely have multiplied at home.

No reform of this magnitude turns out exactly as its architects intended, but the anniversary is a cause for celebration, not recrimination. The polytechnics deserved their new titles and can be justly proud of their achievements. The challenge now is to ensure that they are allowed to build on them. If, as seems likely, the next decade brings further concentration of research funds and differential fees, the new universities cannot be left to sink into an even more stark version of the binary system they escaped in 1992.

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