Join the club, gain status

June 26, 1998

The Institute of Learning and Teaching kicks off this autumn. Chairman Roger King looks its chances

George Bernard Shaw once remarked that all professions are "conspiracies against the laity". In this view he shares a remarkable affinity with Margaret Thatcher. As prime minister she developed a trenchant suspicion of a variety of collectives. The trade unions were perhaps the most notable example. But associations of the relatively high and mighty were often regarded as suborning market forces and consumer interests. The Irish playwright and the English monetarist harboured instinctive reservations that ordinary Joes are the inevitable losers from the middle classes organising themselves.

As someone helping to establish a professional body for academics and others in higher education, these time-honoured aversions to potential closed shops for the moderately affluent and the respectable are intriguing. Is the creation of an Institute for Learning and Teaching likely to result in a protectionist instrument to be exercised on behalf of members, but against the interests of students and other consumers?

Some would claim that in the context of higher education massification such a possibility is remote, and probably far-fetched. Rather that the de-professionalisation of the academic and related practitioners has extended to a level where professional association is a defensive necessity rather than a signal of aggression.

The interests of students are perhaps best maintained and advanced by a balanced tension between professionalisation and the market place. With students set to become more discerning clients, funding more of their education from their own pockets, (and possibly becoming more litigious too), professionalisation can become the means of ensuring quality of responsiveness and also a strategy for protection. Status and esteem are also necessary for helping the practitioner ensure distance in the client relationship.

The government could take three approaches in considering the public accountability of universities and colleges. It could intervene more directly, through statutory regulation. But this would be regarded as inappropriate for autonomous institutions committed to academic freedom. It would also be costly to administer and to monitor.

A second way would be to allow the market to have an even greater role in structuring higher education. This could involve, for example, attributing greater funding power to the individual student, such as personal vouchers.

The "third way" steers a course between the alleged excesses of laissez-faire libertarianism and state intrusion. It would involve the creation of a professional body dedicated to excellence and development in academic practice. Committed to clear ethics and values it could also form - in the classical sociological sense - a "moral community".

In this approach, members' concern for the interests of the student as client would be as much altruistic as instrumental, collectively forming a professional occupation acting as a beacon of moderation.

The proposed institute will need to understand its role and location within a constantly dynamic set of relationships between government and the market-place. The alternative would be greater oscillations in public strategies closer to dirigisme or fuller-blown consumerism.

Roger King, vice-chancellor, University of Lincoln and Humberside, is chairman of the Institute of Learning and Teaching.

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