Missing variations on a funding theme with a bitter twist of experience

January 27, 1995

Reading no fewer than three vice chancellors of "new universities" -- leading polytechnic directors as they were -- pursuing a common theme in a single THES (January 13) should alert politicians to the increasing incoherence of higher education policy.

Leslie Wagner wishes to extend criteria of excellence from the old, "elite" standard of high-quality research and personalised teaching to reflect the diversity of mass higher education. Peter Knight takes on the more obscure corners of HEFCE funding, to show differences in the funding of teaching that have arisen without policy choices, and suggests, perhaps, that engineering is engineering, whether in Bournemouth or Imperial, to be funded equally. While John Stoddart, writing as chairman of the Higher Education Quality Council, argues for "a strong self-regulatory system" for quality which would respect differences of educational mission, yet confirm that awards were of appropriate standard. The contradiction is palpable, if unspoken. Beneath the formal parity of degrees and university status, the reality of the old standards is sorting institutions into a loose hierarchy. As in other mass systems, where you have gained your degree will make the difference. Employers have acted on that basis and will do so with a vengeance; if we judge by the United States, so will universities. Higher education operates as a filter at the institutional level, and will do so as a system. Differences of "mission" will be suspected of disguising differences of standard.

But the contradiction becomes a very real problem by having a monopsonist purchaser of educational services. How is HEFCE to decide where to put public money? We have differential funding by subject and two decades of government policy of favouring some subjects. If there is to be any further differential funding for teaching, by whose standard? (Or, after The Oratory, Mr Blair, which university?) Yet, if formal parity means equal funding, there will come to be perceived misspending. And what happens as funding becomes tighter?

There are three options. One is to revert to a completely obscured funding system and to remove the judgements of value from public scrutiny: this is difficult, at best, in a mass system. A second is to abandon the monopsonist: to turn over the means of purchasing educational services to prospective students. That would guarantee the healthy diversity and autonomy of institutions we should want in a mass system; and there would be motivation for self-regulation: universities would need to attend to feedback, for their funding -- inevitably differential -- would depend upon it. The third option will be eventually unacceptable degrees of hypocrisy and muddle. To whose benefit?

DAVID ANGLUIN 8 Percy Street, Liverpool

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