Fighting over a limited cake

October 31, 1997

THESE are troubled times for UK higher education, though not on the scale suffered in Nigeria.

The government's fees policy became further entangled this week with the decision to give Scottish and EU students a better deal than other UK students studying in Scotland. Meanwhile, in-fighting continues over who is to get what from a limited cake. Oxbridge has run to the prime minister to prevent its extra funding being switched to poorer universities. Members of the lifelong learning advisory group (front page) who see the dire straits further education is in, want richer students to pay more than 20-25 per cent of their course costs.

Institutions, meanwhile, are having trouble recruiting. They are alarmed at the cavalier attitude of officials over collecting tuition fees ("It's your problem"). They do not know how prescriptive guidance to the funding councils may be about distributing money.

Against this background the second seminar at Great Missenden was held last week on accountability and autonomy. These seminars are private since they provide peer advice for colleagues' problems. However, what emerges each time is that institutions are caught in a bind. All face financial difficulties. In virtually every instance salvation appears to lie in differentiation, in developing market strengths, preferably in ways that yield non-government income. And every time it becomes apparent that the centralising proposals of Dearing and the current pressure to compete for research money make it hard to risk branching out.

Thames Valley University provides an example (page 2). TVU is praised by the prime minister. It admits students with non-conventional qualifications and has been innovative in its teaching methods. Such a university, if its degrees are to be respected, must be prepared to see students fail. But with all universities assessed nationally on criteria such as the proportion getting "good" degrees and on low drop-out rates; the penalties and temptations are obvious.

If the government wants more open access it needs to look not for more regulation but for ways to increase institutional autonomy.

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