Forget fruit flies. Stroll to success with turtles

May 13, 2005

UK higher education will improve only if the Government adopts a long-term evolutionary view, says David Watson

Elections are times for looking backward as well as for looking forwards, not least for clues about what might happen next. A review of new Labour's stewardship of higher education over the past four years indicates just how difficult this can be. It has had two policies on higher education and a dramatic change of direction.

New Labour's first policy on higher education was structured around the Dearing report (1997), with the exception of a modification of the recommendations on fees and student support. Otherwise, it went with the grain of an unstratified system, recognising that the achievements of the sector as a whole depended on nurturing different types of institutions within sector-wide arrangements for quality assurance, funding and fair competition. Ministers were in "read-my-lips" mode about the unacceptability of differential fees well into the second term.

The shunt arose from remarks by the Prime Minister, in his Labour Party conference speech in Brighton in September 2001, that there would be a review of student support. What emerged was a U-turn. One of the main effects of the 2003 White Paper on higher education, and the 2004 Higher Education Act, is likely to be the re-emergence of a stratified system. A flat-rate system of student fees has been replaced by a variable regime.

Public funding of research will be more highly concentrated. Institutions are categorised as, for example, "research-intensive" or "more focused on teaching and learning" or "engaged in serving local and regional economies". Meanwhile, the controlled reputation range of UK universities has been diluted by lowering the bar for acquiring a university title.

On fees, a compromise has emerged that satisfies hardly anyone. The maximum fee of £3,000 has turned into a revised flat-rate fee, with few institutions charging less. By setting a low limit and a high parliamentary hurdle for its upward revision, it is hard to see that much has changed - except that the Exchequer will have to fund institutions before collecting the "graduate contribution". For all these reasons, it is foolish to expect the cap simply to be lifted in 2010.

This modest adjustment is accompanied by a huge paraphernalia of "reviews", of transaction costs and of regulation.

Putting this all together reveals a profound split at the heart of new Labour's view of higher education. On the one hand, there is the Treasury's view of a ten-year strategy for "science and innovation, 2004-14", with a desire to support "broadly based leading universities". On the other is the Department for Education and Skills' five-year plan for a re-stratified system, purportedly more market-oriented, but in fact subject to a series of centrally managed short-term initiatives. As a consequence, institutions in the UK have become the fruit flies of evolutionary studies of higher education, genetically manipulated and remanipulated so many times that scholars and policymakers from other countries regard us as the ideal experimental site for the study of development and of heredity. In contrast, the Galapagos turtle is the science and innovation strategy that will bind the Government after next.

"Turtles" are policies such as eradicating child poverty, full employment and the minimum wage. The Tomlinson reforms of 14-19 education were a candidate for "turtle" status until they were wrecked by a combination of enforced ministerial reshuffle and loss of nerve. "Fruit-fly" policies include things such as golden hellos, individual learning accounts and Curriculum 2000. Is the foundation degree a turtle or a fruit fly? The National Health Service University and the eUniversity looked like turtles but became fruit flies.

The future dangers are clear. An exhausted Government may feel that it has "done" higher education; that additional fee income will solve the funding question; and that other aspects of higher education performance (such as widening participation) are simply the responsibility of the institutions.

The 2005 Labour manifesto refers to a "bigger, better system": a potential turtle. Achieving this will take serious attention to the shortfall in public investment compared with the other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, better attention to evidence about how the system can be improved (rather than an obsession with the poorly analysed prospects of a few "top" universities), and significantly fewer fruit flies.

David Watson is vice-chancellor of Brighton University. The Turtle and the Fruit Fly: New Labour and UK Higher Education 2001-05 is available from the Education Research Centre, University of Brighton.

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