Labour paves way for community college bonanza

February 18, 2000

Education secretary David Blunkett's major policy speech on higher education was deliberately given at Greenwich University, once Woolwich Polytechnic, where in 1965 Anthony Crosland famously slammed the university door on the polytechnics, setting up a dual system instead. Blunkett's second speech, in Birmingham, rammed home the message: a uniform higher education system is recognised to be unattain-

able and undesirable: stratification is back.

Concerned now as then with Britain's apparent failure to produce enough people qualified at technician level for an increasingly technology-driven economy (though Blunkett is concerned with the 30th to 50th percentile whereas Crosland was concerned with the fifth to the 15th), Blunkett is adopting Crosland's tactics. He will be relying on aspirant institutions (perhaps mainly the large mixed-economy colleges) to deliver new foundation degrees to a non-traditional cohort of students; standards are to be underpinned by universities; regional training and skills councils will be charged with making sure new courses mesh with local employment needs; creating more universities is not on offer.

Crosland's policy, though it meant 25 years of frustration for polytechnics, increased enormously the range and reach of higher education in the United Kingdom and bred a set of distinctive and highly effective institutions, now universities.

Blunkett's initiative could similarly be the making of a robust and distinctive community college system. There are difficulties, of course. Parity of esteem is easy to talk about but hard to deliver. Those qualifying for higher education but choosing not to go - Blunkett's target group - may not be easy to entice. They can find work relatively easily and are qualified for full degrees if they want them. Success is likely to depend crucially on the guarantee that successful students can go on to honours degrees immediately or later. Experience with Higher National Diplomas (surely now on borrowed time?) has shown that two-year qualifications work best where they are tied in to specific university courses.

At the other end of the spectrum (pace parity of esteem) there are signs of growing recognition that something must be done to ensure the research universities can hack it in an increasingly aggressive world market. Differential fees are being put on the agenda for "after the next election". There is talk of more research money in the next spending review. Tax breaks are being introduced that could help research universities raise scholarship funds. There is also to be pump priming for e-ventures and international collaborations, of which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's deal with Cambridge may be just the harbinger.

The "e-university" scheme raises many questions. The government's diagnosis is right: international competition for the e-learning market is cut-throat and Britain's universities are too small and too poor to compete on their own. But putting public money into one consortium on the strength of a bidding competition controlled by the Higher Education Funding Council is less obviously the right solution.

Such a competition will distract institutions from a host of other projects in the pipeline, along the lines of that announced this week by Sheffield, Southampton, Leeds, York, San Diego, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania State and Washington. The bidding process will cause delay. The competition will create losers, damaging their chances of making other deals. The winners will find themselves encumbered with red tape - over charges, quality assurance and accountability for public money - which will make negotiations harder in a fast-moving market.

For e-ventures of this kind, it might have been wiser for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals collectively to raise Pounds 200 million in the City rather than accept the government's 50 per cent input with all the baggage it will bring.

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