Keep the bright sparks burning

January 31, 1997

Should there be a national curriculum for higher education and if so what would it consist of? The national council of the Training and Enterprise Councils is moving that way, with its demands that degree and other higher education programmes should be developed to enable accreditation within the National Vocational Qualifications structure (page 1).

The Dearing committee is meeting the TEC council next month. The message that economic success depends on small and medium-sized companies and that such companies will increasingly be hiring graduates and others with higher education qualifications and will want them to be useful, will strike a chord with the committee.

Meanwhile this week sees the announcement of Nick Tate's appointment to head Quanca, the combined National Council for Vocational Qualifications and Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority. The appointment depends on the now mauled Education Bill getting through. This is not, however, the controversial part of the legislation. It was recommended by an earlier Dearing report and, if the Bill fails, the merger could well be salvaged for inclusion in Labour legislation. As it stands the legislation will allow Quanca to concern itself with vocational qualifications in higher education. It would be the agency to provide the accreditation the TECs want to see.

Dr Tate's appointment could be seen as the triumph in the merger of the schools' interest over the vocational wing. It could also be seen as the triumph of an open-minded, rather scholarly approach over the NCVQ's rather unsuccessful instrumentalism. He will be associated by many with his forays on national identity, moral and spiritual values and citizenship and with his evident dislike of relativism. Mediated through the tabloid press these will alarm people in higher education. On inspection, however, the speeches in which these ideas were launched suggest a desire for open debate which is welcome. It looks unlikely that Dr Tate will be in the business of forcing upon higher education specified packages of politically correct ideas about citizenship, moral instruction or Our Island Story history teaching.

This does not, however, mean the idea of a national curriculum of some sort in higher education is going to go away. If the Dearing committee is going to be drawn along the line suggested by the TEC national council, then the role of the combined agency will be of considerable importance in sub-degree and first degree work. It is not that anyone is proposing to specify curricula in terms of books, experiments, or received ideas. What is being implied is a strengthening of professional bodies' in-put to curriculum design in vocational courses and the identification of so-called core skills needed for employment which could be required in all accredited courses.

There is growing pressure for some level of external accreditation. Employers and politicians are united in wanting greater control so they can ensure the production, as they see it, of more useful graduates. The Dearing committee will not be able to avoid, even if it wanted to, making at least some recommendations on including in first degrees and sub-degree courses teaching designed to produce "transferable skills". These will no doubt be spelt out at least in outline as in earlier Dearing reports: communication skills, information technology, numeracy, ability to work in groups, etc. If they accept the idea of accreditation this is likely to depend on demonstrating the presence of such elements. It could also involve some form of national assessment, organised by Dr Tate's new agency, of these core curriculum elements.

The first line of resistance is likely to come from academic traditionalists: those who think that course design and content is at the heart of university autonomy, that governments and their agencies should keep out, that courses should be discipline-based not advanced training schemes for employment.

They have a strong point, but such opposition confirms quangocrats, employers and politicians in their determination to assault the bastions of academic autonomy. So much public money is going into higher education, they say, that academics cannot be left to call the tune. In fact, of course, they do not anyway. In large swathes of higher education, where courses lead to qualifications that are recognised for professional practice, curricula are already negotiated in considerable detail with employers.

A more successful defence could be mounted around what might be called intellectual or educational rather than academic values. The argument needs to become more sophisticated, and quickly. On February 13 The THES is joint sponsor with the Council for Industry and Higher Education and London University's Institute of Education of a conference to explore "What Employers Really Want From Higher Education". It would not be too surprising if what emerges is that they do not exactly know. The ability to communicate, to cooperate, numeracy, adaptability, yes. But thoughtful employers are aware that they also need ideas they have not yet thought of, creative people who cannot be turned out to specification. If they are honest they will admit that what they really want is the brightest and best; that it may matter less what people studied than that they are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about something. This provides higher education with an opportunity to define for itself what its purposes are.

To this end, Ronald Barnett of the Institute of Education will shortly publish a thoughtful pamphlet on the higher education curriculum, Towards a Higher Education for a New Century. This is expected to call for a new way of looking at the purposes of higher education, and therefore the values and characteristics which should be built into curricula. He seeks to bridge the divide between academicism and operationalism, between those who defend discipline-based academic study and those who want to see higher education quickly transformed into an adjunct of the economy.

We are unaccustomed to discussing what it is to be an educated person. The very language can seem embarrassing. But in raising questions about the kind of higher education that would give people a positive orientation towards uncertainty, complexity and change. and a disposition to openness, he will do much to counter the present tendency to see core curricula requirements in terms of day-to-day competencies. What we need, and what interests Professor Barnett, is people who can cope with and indeed create completely new situations. This, alas, is the sort of discussion which enrages those impatient to see higher education harnessed to economic success as briskly and cheaply as possible. Luckily, Professor Barnett too is close to the Dearing committee.

It would be foolish to rely on the committee building such ideas into its recommendations, but it would help if, in any drive to operationalism, room is left for higher education itself to develop the kinds of curricula Professor Barnett wants. Dr Tate could prove a better ally in this than his reputation suggests. The TECs on the other hand have their own interests at heart. They should be listened to, of course, but when they demand "labour market relevant programmes", and "greater access to higher education research and development", they should be politely told that those are services for which they should pay. The whole of higher education must not be harnessed to short-term economic needs. If it were, it would lose its ability to provide the sparky people on whom long-term social and economic success depends.

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