Packaging looks great, but content is suffering

June 8, 2001

Higher education is losing sight of its true purpose, write Toni Griffiths, Stephen Rowland and Michael Worton.

A new government will need to think strategically about higher education. But in doing so, there is a pressing need to consider the purpose of higher education and the academic values on which it should be based.

The time of the small, elite university system is past. When University College London was founded in 1826, it was the first university to challenge that elitism, widening access to students from all backgrounds and pioneering radical approaches to research and to the curriculum.

UCL's academic standing is excellent, but it is not easy to maintain the radical approach of those early days. We need a debate about the academic values and the purposes of higher education. The world's best intellectuals have been drawn to universities by the knowledge that their work serves socially valued goals. But over the past ten years, this has been brought into question as universities have become shackled to narrow, short-term economic interests.

Government funding per student has declined. In the competition for limited resources, universities have opened their work to closer public scrutiny and relied more heavily on commercial interests. This has linked universities with the wider community, but it compromises their ability to develop critical and independent knowledge.

These pressures have been exacerbated by a plethora of directives involving questionable modes of audit and constraints on strategic development. The rhetoric of the knowledge economy, knowledge management and globalisation is pervasive. There is a naive expectation that new technologies hold the solution to all problems. In its concern to widen access, the government insists upon an array of compliance testing, league tables, targets and performance indicators. Instead, there should be an attempt to develop a variety of high-quality routes to higher education and to improve resources and salaries in state schools.

The superficial approach to change is reflected in the Quality Assurance Agency, which has lost the respect of the academic community. Its bureaucratic stance has diverted academics from teaching and research, encouraged "game playing" in the important task of evaluation, jeopardising the qualities that it seeks to assure. Many institutions have developed an internal quality audit process that is more rigorous and more attuned to reflection and development than anything from the QAA. On the whole, these are viewed as useful and are not overly demanding on time and resources. National audits should take more account of such locally devised systems, and the emphasis should be on assuring that institutions are acting responsibly.

In terms of broadening access, UCL and many other institutions have gone to great lengths to attract students from a wide social spectrum. Yet state schools in the inner cities have been ill supported by successive governments. The conditions in which many are expected to prepare students for university entry are appalling. Properly funded support and well-paid teachers are needed. It is easy for the government to crack the whip at symptoms, but addressing the underlying causes is more difficult.

The ideology of the competitive market has also led to redefining the search for knowledge in terms of marketable skills and predetermined outcomes - as though the uncertainties of exploration and discovery were not a necessary and exciting aspect of learning. Communication between teachers and students should not be reduced to client satisfaction measures. At UCL we have a variety of means of seeking, discussing and acting on student feedback. Unfortunately, the QAA is interested only where such matters can be reduced to quantitative measures. The assessment and funding arrangements for teaching and research have driven a wedge between the two as institutions strive to find their niche. The struggle to achieve a high rating and make successful bids for funds undermines the excitement of discovery that should be the motivation for research. The prominence of market ideology has led to fragmentation as academics are divided from students, teachers from learners, new universities from old and scholars from managers.

The research assessment exercise requires academics to spend ever more time giving glowing accounts of their work. Could higher education end up spending more on packaging than on content? A clear articulation of our work and the academic values that drive it is overdue. Collegiality, rigorous debate and critical inquiry should characterise our university system, replacing competitiveness, the quick fix and growing demoralisation. If these are indeed the things we care for, it is time for us to say so more forcefully.

Toni Griffiths is head of the department of education and professional development; Stephen Rowland is professor of higher education; and Michael Worton is vice-rector of University College London.

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