New year wishes... David Triesman

December 29, 1995

My aspiration for a higher education policy advance in 1996 is to find a political party with a higher education policy. That means a policy which determines how big the learning and research task is to be and how it is to be funded.

Amassing student debt (Conservative policy), or saying very little and keeping electoral powder dry (Labour and Liberal Democrat policies) will not do. Higher education is suffering its worst crisis in a generation because it seems consistently easier at Westminster to cut expenditure and pretend this has no effect on quality or staff pay and morale - a pretence that significant education stops at 16.

I would like to see a Royal Commission established to identify urgently goals appropriate to our times and the optimum means of funding them. We need a national forum of the key stakeholders to carry forward the tasks identified because it is plain that government does not listen to vice chancellors and principals, higher education professionals, students, the Trade Union Congress or the Confederation of British Industry.

Higher education makes no credible attempt to speak with a united voice although obviously it could. Of course, the profession would do itself an enormous favour by coalescing into a single association for which, in these divisive days, there is an unanswerable case.

I have no doubt what a national forum would achieve. It would set the programme for quality improvement and professional accreditation; be bold in saying when funding per student dips below a quality safe level; it would prescribe a pay review body to break down the pay ghetto walls; it would ensure the conduct of both high quality and newly developing research.

Most of all, it would identify income streams able to sustain wide access to real higher education, thus doing the job from which politicians have tragically resiled.

David Triesman is general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

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