Flexing their muscle

November 15, 1996


How to reconcile flexibility and funding? On the day of the deadline for submissions to the Dearing Inquiry, Simon Midgley outlines the hopes and fears of some of higher education's key players.

The essential objectives for a properly balanced higher education system as identified by the Robbins committee have stood the test of time well but now need to be updated, according to Purposes of Higher Education, a paper submitted by the Department for Education and Employment, the Scottish Office, the Welsh Office and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland.

In 1963 the Robbins committee identified four objectives essential to a properly balanced higher education system. These were: instruction in employment skills; promoting the general powers of the mind; the advancement of learning; and the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship.

The paper says that the balance between these objectives has now shifted. There is more emphasis on instruction in employment skills and higher education's role in underpinning a modern, competitive economy. Today's objectives must reflect the fact that the United Kingdom is a pluralist, multicultural society with wide access to a range of media and a mass higher education system.

An updated version might include: imparting employment skills; providing opportunities for adult lifetime learning to enable individuals, employers and the nation as a whole to adapt to changing circumstances; promoting the general powers of the mind; advancing learning and research; promoting culture and high standards in all aspects of society; and serving local and regional communities, as well as national interests at home and abroad.

In another paper to Dearing, the DFEE argues that the UK needs to ensure that sufficient people gain vocational qualifications and that academic studies contribute to the acquisition of skills which will be useful in subsequent vocations.

The second paper goes on to question whether three-year undergraduate courses should be the norm in a greatly enlarged higher education system. Other countries with high participation rates, the paper notes, often have a significantly higher proportion of sub-degree work. It may be that there should be an increase in the proportion of two-year courses.

The Government would like to encourage the sector to consider new modes of delivering higher education which strengthen employer links. One possibility might be a scheme of the kind which operates for the grandes ecoles in France. This provides for students to work for six months each year with a firm, spending the rest of the time in a higher education institution. The costs would be shared between public funds and employers.

Employers, the paper adds, persistently complain that new graduates lack the skills which are necessary at work. One important issue is whether the acquisition of key skills should be a separate component of a degree or integral to the degree marking.


The nation needs to invest more resources in higher education if the quality of provision is not to be eroded and future prosperity is to be protected, the Council for Industry and Higher Education argues in its submission. Full-time students should be asked to meet part of their tuition costs through a loan scheme.

Key skills should be embedded in every course. "Applied learning" needs to be further developed for students with a practical focus.

The potential of modern technologies needs to be harnessed to improve access to and the quality of learning. Tertiary education should be be delivered at places and times and in a form which better meets the needs of individuals.

There should be an increasing partnership between industry with work-based and work-integrated learning and between institutions. Nationally, institutions with similar missions should jointly commission and deliver courses and modules and monitor and assess standards and quality.

Regional partnerships between higher education and further education should support the local provision of lifelong learning.

Welsh principals

Welsh institutions' contribution to the country's linguistic and cultural heritage and development should be nurtured, according to the Committee of Heads of Welsh Higher Education Institutions.

Funding must take account of the additional costs which compliance with the terms of the Welsh Language Act impose upon Welsh institutions and higher education should not be constrained by economic imperatives from continuing to contribute significantly to scholarship and to cultural enrichment in the broadest sense.

Concentrating research in separate research institutions or in elite universities would be academically and economically damaging.


The most controversial aspect of the Association of University Teachers' submission is likely to be its recommendations on how the higher education system should be funded in future.

But the union executive had not finalised this section of its submission as The THES went to press.

Protecting academic freedom, securing standards and rewarding staff are other themes identified by the union. It argues that it is time to reassert the wider educational and cultural purposes of higher education rather than to continuing to claim that universities are insufficiently responsive to economic needs.

Its priorities include: staffing policies to motivate and reward high standards of professionalism; the value of protecting institutional autonomy and academic freedom; re-establishing the high quality and standards traditionally expected of United Kingdom undergraduate and postgraduate degrees; completing the transition to a genuinely open higher education system by extending access to groups who remain under-represented; and the need for a sensible funding system to replace the present regime of "short-termism."


A single system of maintenance support should be available to all students regardless of level or mode of study, the Association of Colleges argues in its submission.

Mandatory and discretionary awards should be abolished. If the present policy of free tuition for full-time study to degree level were to be maintained, then similar support should be available to all students for courses up this level, regardless of mode of attendance.

Policy should emphasise the contribution which higher education must make to economic and vocational skill requirements, in order to improve competitiveness. The boundary between further education and higher education should be redefined to make clear that all work at sub-degree level, by any mode of study, constitutes further education.

Greater flexibility in the delivery of learning opportunities should be encouraged, to foster lifetime learning, assist up-skilling and retraining, and to respond to the more varied patterns of working life in a modern economy.

A national standards system should encompass the full range of further and higher education qualifications. Credit accumulation and transfer systems should be developed nationally to assist responsiveness and flexibility.

The short-term priority for any expansion of educational provision must be to remedy the shortfall in skills at the intermediate level, identified in the Skills Audit; in higher education the focus should be on vocational courses at sub-degree level, and utilise the strengths of the FE system.

The Open University

The Open University wants lifelong learning to be the defining feature of higher education in the 21st century.

In its submission it says the Dearing committee needs to plan for a world in which continued learning, both structured and informal, will be of critical importance to individuals as they seek to accommodate and embrace change in their lives and work and in the world around them.

Sir John Daniel, the OU's vice chancellor, adds that adults will want access to learning at times and in places that cause minimum disruption to their lives and work.

They will look for flexible, modular courses with multiple entry and exit points and with opportunities for credit accumulation and transfer. The OU has shown that supported open learning that blends high quality, multimedia teaching materials with locally-based tutorial support meets those needs in a way that combines high quality with low cost.

There is also a need for a new system of financial support for students that is appropriate to lifelong learning. More flexible learning patterns will lead to a further blurring of the boundaries between full-time and part-time education and between institution, home and work-based study.

A mandatory awards system that favours one mode of study over another will no longer be relevant or sustainable.

THE MUSEUMS & GALLERIES COMMISSION Most university museums are facing severe funding problems that in some cases could eventually threaten their survival, the Museums and Galleries Commission says in its submission to Dearing.

The money available to university museums through the funding council for England's non-formula funding is limited and covers neither the full costs of running museums nor all potentially eligible university museums.

But the answer lies within the university system rather than transferring responsibility for museums to central government. It points out that the United Kingdom's 400 or so university museums and collections are an extraordinary resource. They include important natural science collections and outstanding fine and decorative art collections.

Their value to teaching and research is too often undervalued, the MGC says. The museums offer the unique opportunity for contact with original materials, and universities could encourage wider use of their collections.

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