Just a push at an open door

March 22, 1996

Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education starts in a few weeks. Below, academics kick off debate in The THES with their views on what evidence he should consider.

The Dearing review is Britain's response to the worldwide crises of access, cost and flexibility in higher education. Industrialised countries struggle to sustain their existing university systems. The developing world treads water, for even to maintain its present participation rates as populations grow would require a new university every week.

Britain's problems seem minor in this wider context. Indeed, what happens in the developing world may be more important for our future security. Fifty per cent of the world's population is aged under 20. Without vigorous action many of these young people will grow up to be unemployed, unconnected and unstable. Mass training for employability is required.

The most widely adopted solution to the higher education crises in the developing world has its origins in Britain. In these countries eight "mega-universities", which enrol over two million students between them, have massively increased access while slashing costs and offering people more flexible study opportunities.

The British model is, of course, the Open University. Can Britain itself learn from the OU as it prepares another reform of its higher education system?

The OU and other United Kingdom universities are converging, drawn together by the force of lifelong learning. Most universities now offer some part-time and distance courses. The lesson from the Open University is that people are ready to pay substantial tuition fees from their own pockets (or to get their employer's help) for higher education of value. Some 150,000 OU students already pay top-up fees. To remain open to the least wealthy the OU allocates around 4 per cent of its fee income to financial assistance. The students accept this Robin Hood policy.

Sir Ron's challenge here is twofold. One step is to nuance the distinction between full-time and part-time students that now creates two incompatible regimes of taxpayer support. A second is to allow all students to make increasing contributions to the cost of tuition as the country gets richer.

The more important task is to find mechanisms to help higher education reduce its costs. Whatever blend of student, taxpayer and employer contributions pays the bill, higher education must be made more affordable. But how are costs to come down? The efficiency gains from the competitive dynamic of the post-1992 funding regime have run their course. It is time to look at what and how we teach. Other European countries economise by including elements of a national curriculum or national examinations in their universities. They also winnow down large first-year classes. Neither is the British way. However, one can oppose national university curricula and examinations without arguing that 100 institutions must each have distinct and different first-year courses in psychology.

The encouragement of institutional idiosyncrasy in the use of new technology is even less cost-effective. Good technology-based teaching and learning requires investment, which must mean more collaborative development of materials and not just add-ons to existing arrangements. Economy requires some substitution of capital for labour in teaching. Yet it seems that neither the collaborative work of the Open Learning Foundation, nor the experience of thousands of OU academics, has created the technology transfer necessary to increase the cost-effectiveness of teaching and learning in the sector. Among recent Government programmes the Enterprise in Higher Education programme had success in embedding institutional change. Sir Ron and his team should review this and other initiatives to find ways of guiding the sector towards cost-effective inter-institutional collaboration.

A generation ago distance education - then called correspondence education - had a poor reputation. Hard work and new technology has increased the credibility of such alternatives to the lecture theatre. However, the stone may have been pushed to the top of quality hill, but it has not been cemented into place. A competitive free-for-all between poorly resourced universities to develop technology-based teaching could easily send the stone rolling down again. The challenge of funding methodology is to create a balance of competition and collaboration in the development of curricula and technologies for teaching and learning. Radical gains in cost-effectiveness are possible.

Sir John Daniel Vice chancellor of the Open University.

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