Moral anchors spin on centralising axis

March 28, 1997

A colleague from one of the former polytechnics is retiring this year. He is a professor and head of department in the humanities; as well as an excellent teacher and a sound administrator. He is too young to leave. A central policy change concerning the pension scheme is forcing him out prematurely. He will be a sad loss to the profession.

It was central policy which ultimately turned polytechnics into universities. In being freed from local authority control in 1989 the polytechnics achieved financial autonomy. In maturing through the Council for National Academic Awards quality control process, the polytechnics demonstrated an independence of character commensurate with university status. In changing their names in 1992, they adopted an international nomenclature for the kind of institutions they are and the work they undertake. Until that change there was little domestic debate about standards in higher education.

Many of the polytechnics' teaching staff have been appointed from the "old" universities. Many of the ex-polytechnics are even older in foundation than some traditional universities. Their history is one of opening access to higher education, away from a culture of privilege.

The concept of higher education for all who could benefit from it raised issues of principle once all institutions assumed the same status. The problems of standard developed from the expansion of access. The Robbins ideal in theory was acceptable but in practice it threatened the identity of certain types of institution.

Protectionism developed and charges and counter-charges were made. Factions emerged, not just because of financial competition, but because of the need for an understanding of institutional identity in a new educational environment. A worrying trend has emerged in an implicit move to distinguish the difference between education and training. As a palliative the country may soon return to a simplistic solution of a binary university sector equating to the old grammar and secondary modern school paradigm. The clock will be set back 30 years. Conservative politicians are advocating this for the secondary sector. Dearing might do the same for the universities, under the guise of vocational appropriateness. In a society nurtured by the competitive edge, such a view will find support whatever happens in the ballot box. Mass higher education, developed to satisfy the demands of the comprehensive concept, has another reason to find itself in transition.

Yet, if the answer given to the standards and financial debates result in dividing higher education into the educators and the trainers, something related to the social cohesion of the country itself will be sacrificed. The importance of the creation of wealth needs, of course, to be stressed. All universities should be, and are, involved with it. Equally, emphasis has to be placed on the need society has for its universities to offer broader based education. As the 20th century has progressed, civilisation has lost its moral and social reference points. The university as a place of education is one of the few stabilising forces left. It maintains its own individuality with which its students can identify. Each university serves its particular constituency. To determine the nature of individual institutions, or groups of institutions, centrally or regionally, could endanger principles of access in relation to basic educational ideals. Central policy should be true to the contract it made with its devolved institutions.

By allowing the sector to work out its own arguments, the government - Tory or Labour - will keep faith with an ideology that allows greater participation rate in the educational as well as the training process. I fear the opposite may occur and that my colleague from the humanities will be both happy and sad to be retired from the fray.

Michael Scott is pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University but writes in a personal capacity.

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