Here's an initiative: leave us to come up with ideas

July 13, 2007

Does the new tightly focused ministry signal a more meddlesome approach? Michael Shattock hopes not

The creation of a new government department with "universities" in its title can be seen as a vindication of what higher education has always thought it needed. Here is a ministry all of its own, separate from the rest of education - the "seamless coat" once beloved of Labour politicians, re-tailored and marking a return to the pre-Robbins days when universities were thought to need protection from the overzealous Ministry of Education.

Another reaction, however, might be alarm. If universities are recognised as being so important, will they not be subject to increased ministerial interference? Indeed, the words "innovation" and "skills" in the new department's title could signify intervention on a more intense scale even than that seen in the past decade.

One of the problems of "education, education, education" has been that it has generated "initiative-itis", in which rhetoric and sound-bite reforms are accompanied by funding incentives made the more compelling in higher education by the significant underfunding of the system as a whole.

Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in widening participation and industrial collaboration. In the former, the redoubtable Estelle Morris admitted that the problem lay outside the universities, in the schools' staying-on rate. The recent publicity around the widening gap between rich and poor and the fact that one third of children are born to families living below the poverty line confirms that the issue universities are being incentivised to address can be solved only by much wider fundamental cultural and social reform.

It is right that universities seek to widen participation - but the many initiatives encouraging them to do so barely scratch the surface. And if the universities best placed by location and tradition to encourage access could afford staff to student ratios of 1:15 instead of 1:25 or higher, they would be better placed to attack the concomitant problem of low retention rates.

Industrial collaboration is a theme that also goes back to pre-Thatcher days. But the roots of the low rate of industrial investment in research and development lie in broad economic trends. As the Lambert report pointed out, the failure to take up ideas generated in universities lies more in company priorities and less in the quality and relevance of research. Perhaps the most striking contributions to national wealth have been generated by mathematicians and mathematical economists working in the financial markets than by engineers and scientists working in industry.

It is no accident that in a knowledge economy the universities most deeply committed to fundamental research (and so not natural beneficiaries of collaborative incentives) turn out to generate the most industrial and commercial funding. The improved funding base for scientific and technological research has done much more to encourage industrial collaboration than any number of initiatives.

The most loaded word in the new department's title is "innovation". If "innovation" continues to be a synonym for science and technology, we may take comfort that the stable funding regime now apparent in these areas will continue. The danger comes when the incentive to innovate becomes the prerogative of central government or the research councils, rather than of the individuals and the institutions that are responsible for the intellectual products.

We have had nearly two decades of a funding council approach that claims to be a buffer between government and the universities. In practice, it has been a kind of sieve through which ideas generated outside the sector have been fed in through discrete funding streams. In an underfunded system, universities have necessarily concentrated on competing in response to these external stimuli to the extent that innovation has been squeezed out. We need fewer initiatives from the top and a breathing space to encourage more ideas from below.

What the country needs is a vibrant, innovative university system that is proactive in generating its own ideas in teaching, research and working with its communities, not a set of institutions that can succeed only by dancing to every new tune the Government plays.

This is not to argue that government has no role in a "mixed economy" university system. But the new department should restrict itself to a statement of priorities and themes and then stand back and let the universities innovate in their own way.

If we want to stimulate institutional vitality, we must give institutions encouragement to generate their own new ideas.

Michael Shattock is visiting professor at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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