Lifting cap may exclude more

December 21, 2001

One of the first victims of widening participation may be social inclusion, says Alex Price.

Higher education has never had such a high profile. The government's plan to achieve a 50 per cent participation rate is focusing attention on the funding of higher education in the most sympathetic fashion for a decade, with the debate linked to the pursuit of a "knowledge-based economy", apparently the new Holy Grail. But what is remarkable about this attention is the lack of penetration beneath the soundbites to understand the implications of such fundamental restructuring.

The government's plan and drip-fed announcements need to be joined together and placed in a broader context. The government is targeting expansion at the working class in an effort to tackle social inclusion. Social inclusion, though, is based on an economic imperative to make the average UK worker more likely to attract investment and thus jobs than his or her foreign counterparts. So increasing participation is to be twinned with a curriculum emphasis on transferable skills, those likely to be of use to companies wanting to set up business in the United Kingdom. This is to be achieved not only by demanding that these skills be centralised in the curriculum, through, for instance, the Quality Assurance Agency, but also by encouraging links with business.

The next step will be to promote the values of entrepreneurship as part of the higher education experience. The crux of expansion, then, is nothing short of remaking the working class in the model of the internationally competitive service-sector worker. While this may appear necessary in the context of increasing international competition, it should not be forgotten that the price will be intensified demands of productivity and efficiency on people's lives.

Those of us with a natural distaste for providing such incentives to profiteers and for reducing education to training will shudder. But there may be a cause for more widespread concern within the higher education community. While the QAA and its rigorous testing regime may be reworked, some of its more pernicious elements will remain. Even more ominous, the preferred method for achieving better performance (as defined by impact on gross domestic product) and expansion will be increased competition. The government has promised to end the capping of student numbers. This will bring increased competition between different higher education providers. Elite research institutions will look towards the top end of the market where top-up fees can be charged, while the post-92 sector will be forced to apply itself to the expansion agenda, with an increasingly blurred distinction between further and higher education and the transferable skills agenda reigning supreme.

With the gradual integration of European higher education, there may also be space for increased competition from abroad from traditional higher education institutions and private providers already heavily involved in the postgraduate professional education sector. With technological development and increased uptake of e-learning, it seems certain that a fair proportion of the 50 per cent target will be taken up by those on online distance-learning courses. The higher education world is set for a dramatic shake-up in which not all will survive.

Oddly enough, perhaps the first casualty will be social inclusion. The prospect of differentiated provision and the continuing shadow of top-up fees means that access will depend more on the ability to pay. This is underlined by the likely experience of online distance learning. In the United States, where this form of learning in higher education is more developed, there is pressure to unbundle service provision: why should those studying online pay the costs of services supplied to those on campus? So more people may be able to access higher education, but their experience of it will be markedly different from that of their predecessors or indeed of those able to afford to attend university.

Ideological commitments to expansion and social inclusion, and concerns about how this should be funded, should not blind higher education to the possible consequences, not only in terms of students, staff and the intrinsic quality of higher education as a life-enriching experience, but also on what is being called the work-life balance.

Alex Price is a university researcher.

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