In its discussion paper on graduate standards, the Higher Education Quality Council argues that there is an essence of graduateness characteristic to those who have successfully completed an honours degree at a United Kingdom university. The paper asks what this is. This is sheer speciousness. From the point of view of a new university, there are good reasons for challenging the assumption of one immutable model of higher education to which all institutions should aspire.
First, there can be no definitive answer to the question of what graduateness is. "University" and "graduate" are relative concepts. The paper acknowledges that the idea of what a graduate can do is relative between subjects, but it fails to give sufficient weight to the argument that the idea of graduateness also changes across time. Indeed, the idea of a university is subject to constant renegotiation as the social and economic context of higher education unfolds.
There is no consensus on the definition of graduateness. The constituent variables are too numerous and interdependent to isolate, because the development of mass higher education is but one manifestation of broader social changes, not the cause. The traditional, residential model is attractive but simply not sustainable for mass higher education, yet it is the model with which UK opinion-formers are most familiar and against which other forms are found wanting.
Arguably the prestige of the traditional model, combined with its remoteness from the concerns of the modern world, has been a significant factor in the UK's economic decline. By contrast, the experience the new universities of the 1990s offer students - immersion in a multicultural community, relationships with employers on a day-to-day basis, a pedagogy which relates theory to practice, and an attempt to encourage students to consider the vocational relevance of their programmes - seems better suited to future national needs.
This leads to the second point: that, when up to a third of the age group is entering higher education, with all the public expenditure entailed, it seems appropriate that society should have a point of view about the nature of the education provided. Insofar as higher education is expected to contribute to national economic wellbeing in an increasingly competitive global environment, it is right that the Government should have a voice in determining what is expected of the UK university sector especially between the relative priorities of, say, access or vocational relevance. It is not an immutable truth that the status the academic world accords graduateness, and whatever it considers should comprise such a notion, should be of greater consequence than what the country requires of its higher education.
Third, we must challenge the premise hidden in the graduateness argument that standards are under threat because of hitherto unimaginable diversity in the higher education system. History will surely confirm that the changes of the 1990s are mere perturbations when compared to the radical innovations of that unfashionable era, the 1960s. With the benefit of hindsight, can we seriously argue that academic quality was compromised by the 1960s' shift in the system paradigm? And how might we rate academic standards now compared with those prevailing in, say, 1961?
We must reaffirm that higher education in the 1990s is necessarily different to, but not worse than, that which has been offered in previous eras. It is also important that we draw a conceptual distinction between the nature of provision and the standard of that provision.
That higher education is now different does not mean that it is of a lower standard, and it is worrying that the HEQC paper begins by talking about graduateness then changes to a discussion of threshold standards. While it is valuable explicitly to articulate our expectations of graduates, it is futile to "define generic attributes that might play a part in the definition of threshold standards for degrees", as work in the new universities on trying to identify, in partnership with employers, the components of "core skills" have shown.
But while the search for a concrete operational definition of core skills may be futile, the discussion process is valuable, offering opportunities to invite employers to comment on the development of the university curriculum and to draw attention to first-hand experience of trends in labour markets.
Fourth, the paper overlooks the influence of European practice on the development of UK higher education. It is arguable that we are seeing a convergence of systems across national boundaries. In part, this is prompted by the globalisation of multinational corporations and communications systems.
All advanced economies are struggling with rising demand for higher education from individuals, the expectation by employers of greater vocational relevance, and the insistence of governments on greater accountability. Such convergence is actively sponsored by European Union agencies.
It is unwise to confine discussion about graduateness to the UK experience. There may well be better practice elsewhere. The modern university must be responsive to the developing social and economic demands of society both at home and internationally. For the 21st century we need an open, inclusive and adaptable higher education system not one controlled by sectional self-interest. The issues addressed in the HEQC's paper do not help to fulfil these aspirations.
Richard Harris is dean of quality assurance at the University of Luton.