Level heads and playing fields

August 16, 1996

Dear Ron... In the third of our open letters to the Dearing committee of inquiry into higher education, Tony Wood, (left) vice chancellor of the University of Luton, takes pride in his university's ability to withstand pressure on staff and resources, but asks Sir Ron to look at ways to achieve equity in these pressures. PLinks with further education and with interested parties outside the sector should have priority. And the views of students - and Laurie Taylor - on the purpose of higher education are important, too.

I doubt whether you will remember, but you came to the University of Luton four years ago to give an after-dinner address to the great and the good. During the meal we spoke about ways of making better use of scarce educational resources. You seemed quite impressed, I recall, at our progress in this regard.

Well, here we are, the sole university with a third semester, carrying the flag for all. Our third semester has just begun: one of the only two such schemes funded as pilots by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. We have been rather looking forward to it. Further pressures on staff as well as on physical and technological resources will result, but this is not new to us.

I noticed, recently, a debate in one of our ancient universities on whether the teaching term should be extended from seven to eight weeks. It was said the fellows would be a bit miffed at losing an extra week from their summer vacation research time. I gather college bursars were none too pleased either, at the thought of sacrificing a week's income from the tourist, sorry, conference trade.

This summer, as every year, is destined to be very different for the staff in our two universities. I say this with no malice, no envy, or shouts of "unfair": more as a way of opening a tiny window on two contrasting worlds, both part of your inquiry. They reflect, perhaps, in ethos, purpose and emphasis, the poles of the higher education system you have been charged with shaping.

I imagine there will be loads of people eager to tell you about that other world. It has, after all, been around for some time, and professions like the civil service are positively stuffed with its disciples. You will not find so many, though, who can speak knowledgeably about ours. It was only last week we celebrated our third birthday, and it is perhaps a bit optimistic to expect a Luton graduate to be a permanent secretary yet - but give us time. So here are a few pointers for your committee from our part of the galaxy.

You might anticipate I would begin with resources. But, no. I am not about to pick up the cudgels for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Princpals and advance 100 reasons for allocating more cash to higher education. There is a more pressing issue to resolve concerning inequities. Where is the justice in a system which permits the huge variations that exist in the funding per student for similar provision? Should not our several thousand local students be entitled to expect their university to be supported from the public purse to the same degree as other home-based students elsewhere?

Perhaps there should be variations, but they need to be drawn out and justified. I expect you will be examining how the National Health Service, for example, has been moving towards greater equity for patients across the nation, through a programme of phased capitation adjustments to health authority funding. Residual variations will reflect the differing pressures caused by factors such as geography, age profiles, and levels of deprivation. Analogies in higher education will be easy to find: for example more, not less, resources are needed for students who are less well qualified at the point of entry, are from ethnic minorities, or are drawn from lower social classes. Universities committed to widening access should be given more tangible incentives to seek and admit such students.

While I am encouraged by the relevant proposals in the recent HEFCE consultation document on the funding method for teaching, we look to your committee to make such principles axiomatic to future education policy.

We all observe the trends in attendance patterns and modes of study, requiring greater flexibility on our part, especially from older students. Against such a background, perpetuating the distinction between full-time and part-time study is clearly absurd. If we can set this to one side, perhaps the equally unfair funding differences, which encourage us all to rush after full-time students for reasons of financial survival, can then be addressed. Common sense suggests the needs of the modern world are best met by expecting education permanente to be the national norm. The present arrangements are dispiriting for those institutions wanting to follow such a route.

I assume you will agree an appropriate research base is a sine qua non for every university. Universities like mine, which have been carefully building a level of research activity commensurate with their role, purpose and prime function, should be helped to continue, rather than to cut and run for the big money. At present, the temptation is almost irresistible. After all, high funding received for research facilitates substantial cross subsidies for teaching (does anyone deny it?). A Research Assessment Exercise five holds more than a promise for a near 24 in quality assessment.

Help us to be strong and encourage us to nurture our fledgling research teams. Do not be swayed by those who would cite the apparent dearth of Nobel prize-winners as justification for directing available funds to the high-flying departments. Many of the stars of 20 years hence will now be on the nursery slopes. They could be in any university. They could be here.

Such proposals are part of a wider picture which does cause me some concern, for it is but one example of exclusion, or perhaps I should says elitism. Martin Harris (of Manchester fame) has caused some angst recommending the concentration of central funding for both research and taught masters' students in a limited number of universities. Why not go the whole hog and take us back to those (for some) halcyon days of pre-1989, when every proposed new course had to run the approvals gauntlet of regional and national vetoes, exercised with enthusiasm by existing providers.

I am sure your committee is far too astute to be distracted by this sort of nonsense. Major players of long standing have had ample opportunity to establish credentials, and secure their future share of the market, without needing to close the gates to the rest of us. I could restate an earlier point: why should the commuting students within the half million catchment of my university be denied the same opportunities for local postgraduate study or research enjoyed by the inhabitants of Manchester, Leeds, or anywhere else?

We lack no enthusiasm to enter into fair competition with others for public and private funds, for students and clients, and for business activities of any acceptable kind; we are confident we can match anyone in quality, relevance, and value for money. We find the rearguard actions of some who seek to hang on to the status quo a bit hard to take. All we seek is a reasonably level playing field, or at least a reduction in the current one-in-two slope. If diversity is perceived to be good, and institutions are given a fair chance to provide what they deem appropriate, then complementary provision, and national centres of strength, will emerge naturally. There is no need to reintroduce central control.

I expect you will have many esoteric debates about the purpose of higher education. Laurie Taylor probably has some ideas worth considering. Will you be asking students their views? You are welcome to come here.

In a recent article (THES, June 21), my colleague Richard Harris pointed out there can be no definitive answer to the question of what graduateness is, and that the terms "university" and "graduate" are relative concepts which change across time, as the social and economic context changes. He argues that the experience offered to students in modern universities, such as immersion in a multi-cultural community, day-to-day relationships with employers, a pedagogy that relates them to practice, and an attempt to encourage students to consider the vocational relevance of their programmes, are perhaps better suited to future national needs than the traditional alternatives.

Such things are central to our philosophy. We believe it is part of our role to help meet the future human resource needs of industry, business and the professions. Employers are heavily involved in such things as course design, validation, and the identification of core transferable skills. Our commitment to work-based learning qualifications for those already employed grows year by year. There is much under-developed talent in the national work force; it is heartening when we are able to draw this out, and facilitate its development. I hope your report will reflect these sentiments in ways as powerful as the experiences enjoyed by our students.

You will be interested in the linkages between higher education and other parts of the education system. Few would question the desirability of having the seamless robe as the ideal. Some vice chancellors envisage the cloak extending over the whole of their universities; others, of which I am one, prefer a model which creates tight further/higher education networks at a local level. Whatever the choice, a commitment to mass higher education requires a clear understanding of how further education and sixth-form studies fit into the higher education matrix. We all would benefit from a greater national focus on this interface. Our effectiveness is strongly determined by these connections, which is why many vice chancellors spend a fair amount of time forging links and greasing chains.

Perhaps you can find ways of assisting the process for those stakeholders falling within your remit. A splendid example of a government initiative in this regard was the Enterprise in Higher Education scheme. The project at Luton has just come to the end of its five-year period, with all objectives achieved and more. Real value for the public money invested.

Last week we held the annual meeting of the University of Luton court, chaired by our chancellor Sir David Plastow. The main item for discussion was the work of your committee. I was hoping to glean some interesting angles for incorporation into the university's submission, and I was not disappointed. There were many splendid contributions from people who were able to reflect on higher education from the outside in, something educationists perhaps need to try and do more often.

As I listened to a particularly fruitful interchange between the chairman and Bill Morris, I reflected on a paradox. Two men: one, a top boss, committed to wealth creation, capitalism, and generating high dividends for his shareholders; the other, the head of the huge Transport and General Workers Union, the champion of the working man and woman, in some ways the adversary of the first in promoting the interests of his members. Both were in complete harmony on the way forward for higher education. Two worlds, one purpose. Perhaps there is a message in there for your committee?

Tony Wood is vice chancellor, University of Luton.

Next week's open letter to the Dearing inquiry will be from Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College of Technology.

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