Keep the magic rolling along

July 28, 1995

I recently joined 100,000 other fans at Wembley Stadium to see The Rolling Stones. The diversity of those attending the concert was remarkable. The Stones attracted not only ageing rockers, and a few remnants of 1960s "flower power", but also a surprising number of the very young.

What motivated 14-19 year-olds to stand shoulder to shoulder to see a group of men old enough to be grandfathers may not be immediately obvious. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they wanted to experience the magic of a living legend. The Stones' spectacular show demonstrated their skills at marketing a truly popular culture.

There is an important lesson here for both the Government and the opposition as they put the finishing touches to their respective reviews of higher education. It is already clear that we can expect further reforms to continue transforming the definitions of higher education and the university.

This process is well under way: "higher education" is now delivered in a wide variety of institutions, including private companies, not just in universities. The change in the nature and purpose of "the university", signalled by the decision to allow the polytechnics to use the title, is probably irreversible.

Universities are seen not as communities of scholars but as "delivery system", organised and funded to meet the learning needs of students. The shift from an elite to a mass-delivery model means that despite "consolidation" we are already en route to a "universal" system, with participating rates of 40 to 50 per cent.

One of the major engines of this growth is the development of close ties between universities and local colleges of higher and further education. Whatever the strategic or financial forces, the common purpose appears to be the demolition of the remaining barriers inhibiting progression from further to higher education. The establishment within the new Department for Education and Employment of a single directorate covering further and higher education is an interesting development.

Not surprisingly, this agenda has mobilised conservatives who warn of reductionism, and academic snobs who regard such a democratisation of higher education as tantamount to its "proletarianisation".

However, we need to be aware of potential pitfalls. As was noted at the recent SHRE conference on "Changing the student experience", modularisation is a useful tool for delivering mass higher education in a cost-effective way, but the dangers of fragmentation, isolation and alienation must be recognised. American experience provided useful pointers to managing such schemes with a view to reducing drop-out and maintaining quality.

A key to success is recognising the need of individuals to feel programmes have been tailored to their needs. This is a challenging task. There is also an implicit conundrum: one benefit of the elite higher education system was the sense of achievement for participants who could also expect to secure a well-paid job.

In a mass or universal system where post-secondary education is the norm and where graduate employment opportunities are more limited, how can we retain this notion that students are "special"? To return to my starting point, the challenge facing us is to reinforce the message that democratisation has not eliminated or diminished the "magic" of learning but simply made it available to a wider potential population.

Diana Green is pro vice chancellor of the University of Central England.

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