Looking back from the future

August 30, 1996

Dear Ron... In the fifth of our series of open letters to the Dearing committee of inquiry into higher education, Patrick Coldstream, (left) takes a look at the future from a vantage point in the 21st century. He tracks the fortunes and vicissitudes of his granddaughter and her passage through the post-Dearing system as she pursues the technology management option. In this flight of fancy Mr Coldstream explores several very real possibilities that may result in the wake of Dearing.

By the year 2010 "Going to College", as they used to call it, had lost such traces of exclusiveness as had remained in higher education in the mid-90s. My granddaughter, by no means among the more academic 30 per cent, was comfortably among the 55 per cent who now qualified. She did struggle, though, to achieve a score in the national mathematics entrance test high enough to give her a choice of the courses she wanted to follow. The intensive maths preparatory classes certainly helped her.

Concern for "standards" at the turn of the century confronted an equal concern, shared by students, parents and government, that degree courses should not be lengthened nor made more expensive. The upshot was the invention of a national matriculation threshold to be reached by college entrants. They must show their paces in language competence (speaking, listening, writing, reading), practical numeracy, and "systematics",' a combination of technical imagination with logic.

Anxiety for wide access ensured that the national thresholds were set low; but higher scores, especially in maths, were increasingly needed for the most desirable courses.

"Desirable" did not always mean academically distinguished. In degree courses "more" had really come to mean "different", since more than half the new entrants arrived at university with no conventional academic education since they were 16.

Youngsters, doomed in earlier decades to follow academic A-level courses and fail them (for want of an alternative), sailed confidently over the much criticised but eventually much improved hurdles that succeeded General-National-Vocational-Qualifications-at-Advanced-Level.

The Dearing Report on Tertiary Education of 1997 had invited universities and colleges to respond by developing a full range of degree-level education in an applied style. The council for Industry and Higher Education had called for that two years before. "Much imaginative effort," was needed, the council had said "to develop new forms of learning, not to replace but to complement the older ones".

It had gone on: "To appeal to more practical minds the new education will often need to be grounded in actual tasks and projects, in the concrete and here-and-now rather than in the speculative and abstract. Above all an applied education must offer a breadth that encourages versatility for a changing world and widens the range of choices students are equipped to make."

Sir Ron, in his earlier discussion of education for 16 to 19-year-olds, had made the same point. He had rechristened GNVQs "applied A levels", explicitly discarding the label "vocational" A levels, which ministers had mistakenly tried out several years before. "Applied" had won the battle for public, university and employer esteem in a way that "vocational" could never hope to do.

My granddaughter, keen to stay close to "her community" in an unstable world, did the first year of her degree work in the local college (once called an FE college) where she had studied since she was 16. That was, of course, no longer seen as an alternative to "being at university". On the contrary, the word "university" itself had almost lost the sense of a place. It had gained instead a meaning which combined some of the force of "fellowship" with some of that of "network". So she had joined "the university" and her "initial centre of study" was the college.

Not that any course of study could be pursued anywhere. The local colleges in particular responded to pressure all round not to drift in too academic a direction.

They had keenly embraced the higher courses (now called tertiary) but generally speaking offered only work with a strongly applied emphasis. It was usually bound in tightly with the social and economic activities around them. The granddaughter, capable and ambitious, if unscholarly in the older sense, pursued the highly sought-after programme known as "technology management". Sounding grander than it was, TM had arisen from cross-disciplinary thinking among professors of engineering and of business studies. Engineers were keen to broaden the range of what they offered to include some generalises; business departments were looking by contrast for a narrower differentiation and clearer focus in their somewhat sprawling field.

TM exemplified the applied education enterprise. "Technology" was already shorthand for the "systematic application of brainpower to practical problems"; a "technological society", people said, was to be understood not as one richly equipped with software, hardware and gadgets, but rather as a society particularly able to value intellect for its practical usefulness.

Our heroine spent her second university year at an ex-polytechnic city university (but taught in part by some of those who had taught her at the college). She then gave up full-time study to become what was known as a "cadet" with a local company. There she was expected to spend a third of her time over three years completing the final studies under university auspices to reach her degree. Her experience at work would make much of the material for her study. Cadetships were on offer in many occupations, including local authorities and the health service along with industry.

It was considered highly privileged: whereas higher education was plentiful, first-class work experience was rare and much prized. The university's virtuality offered both context and support for the very conscious process of life-long self-development (the phrase of the time) on which they saw the students embarked.

Some cadetships were more desirable than others, but by 2010 there were openings for most students who sought them. The ideas of applied education, "breadth coupled with relevance", and of "using the working world as the raw material of learning" had begun to appeal to many employers at the end of the previous century. A task group led by the CBI, had encouraged Training and Enterprise Councils and Business Links to invite employers to reassess how they could offer the fullest range of experience to students.

Employers themselves, anxious to show regional and local responsibility, found their own managers keen to help young people and teach them what they could. In return, of course, employers insisted on value for effort from their own cadets and usually got it.

Young people learned to expect quite small pay-packets because, as they recognised, they knew so little. In a data-rich world they had been taught to tell the wheat from chaff. With their mentor-managers many could do jobs of thinking, data-collecting, and reorganising that managers otherwise had little time for.

The early years of tertiary education as followed by my granddaughter were planned and judged as being essentially foundational. They were to equip students with capabilities for a "learning journey" through life that was to follow. Much of my granddaughter's first two years had been organised around projects, some live-in-the-world and many simulated. Simulation-building had quietly emerged as a major and fascinating area of intellectual effort for academics: people in many fields in a very risky world were keen to confront experience without taking its risks.

An educated person, it was explained to my granddaughter in her early university years, was no longer seen as one who contained within herself a large, and largely measurable, stock of the world's knowledge. Rather she was one trained to engage in the world's many complexities in a spirit of constant inquiry, critical thinking and reflection on current practices. Effective, she should try to be, as well as wise!

For example, she learnt that the world's challenges were often so complicated that it was irrational to engage with them on one's own. Different but inseparable facets of a problem often demanded simultaneously a variety of intellectual approaches, disciplinary insights and human temperaments. Otherwise they would be incompetently tackled. Interestingly, the high-level linguistic competence implied was assumed to include fluency with a range of everyday mathematical terms. On the whole many processes were represented digitally and what was digital could be counted. So language must include number.

Those education ideals pointed to highly engaged, responsive and participative teaching and learning. Over 15 years they had led to a near-revolution in methods. During the 1990s the Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering and British Academy had combined to suggest some Pounds 50 million of the universities' research budget should be earmarked for the investigation of human learning and teaching processes.

The activity of teaching had once more been accorded a position of pre-eminent importance. Wise leadership had assured academics that the purpose of new technology was not to replace them (out of the question) but to free them for what the Council for Industry and Higher Education had once called their proper and distinctively human activity of encouraging, advising, checking, criticising, praising and assessing progress of their students.

Second, academics came to assert that "scholarly exploration" was inseparable from teaching in applied education. The staff must precede their students in investigating, analysing, generalising about, and coming to know intimately, aspects of the world for which their students were heading. Lecturers were in and out of local organisations, seeking placement opportunities, learning, advising, comparing and contrasting. Their publications combined a measure of true learnedness with the dissemination of useful practice around the economy and society. The permanent university staff were correspondingly reinforced by a considerable force of part-timers - mostly practitioners from the working world. Now that students were asked to reflect and analyse the world "out there", practitioners had more scope to do what they (as amateur lecturers) were best at. They were asked to bring reality to the classroom by describing their own part of the world and the objects, people, activities, and decisions in it.

That relatively straightforward task fell well within the compass of many who had spent their lives in business, for example. Moreover as most university staff themselves, excepting some of the oldest generation, were trained in the professionalism of teaching and learning (because there was so much to grasp) they were better able to insist that willing part-time teachers might submit to at least a little training.

My granddaughter's greatest intellectual virtue now proved to be an insatiable curiosity, or what the Council for Industry and Higher Education in a more rhetorical moment once called a passionate inquisitiveness.

Patrick Coldstream retired this summer after ten years as director of the Council for Industry and Higher Education. This leader is based on a lecture to be published by the Society for Research in Higher Education.

Next week's open letter to the Dearing inquiry will be the students' view from Jamie Darwen and Ghassan Karian.

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