Paper casts the regions adrift

February 21, 2003

United Kingdom? Not according to the proposals advanced in the white paper, says Gerry McKenna

The white paper signals the break-up of higher education in the UK. The proposals represent the de facto deregulation of the sector. They are a retreat from meaningful social inclusion, make poor economic sense and divide the regions.

This is evident in the reaction from Universities UK, which did not put the case for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In welcoming the increased funding for England, it failed to present an adequate critical analysis of the white paper and its defects.

I am deeply concerned at the financial implications for students, universities and staff - all issues that are only beginning to be addressed by the UK's regional assemblies. It is disingenuous to say that Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are free to choose a system that best suits their regional agendas.

The stark reality in Northern Ireland is that the devolved government does not have the power to raise taxes. Yet we must remain competitive and be able to recruit and retain some of the best talent for teaching and research. We border the Irish Republic, which has abolished university tuition fees.

Realistically, UK universities must accept the place of competition in a 21st-century higher education system. Nevertheless, I find the secretary of state's market-driven focus hard to reconcile with higher education minister Margaret Hodge's comments on a government committed to a system of higher education based on "potential not parentage, merit not money, talent not title".

But a Darwinian system at the mercy of market forces means a free-for-all in which the most vulnerable will suffer. Let us not forget that many of those from disadvantaged backgrounds are among the most talented and motivated of students. Here in Northern Ireland, where we have led the UK in widening access, there is irrefutable evidence of this, but it does not seem to have been part of government thinking.

Therefore, the proposals not only make for a less just and less stable society, but they harm the skills base of our economy. It is dishonest to say that these proposals are an advance on the path, to use the government's own words, from "elitism to inclusion". I find there is a credibility gap between the white paper and what the government has said it will achieve.

The thrust of the government's research policy will allow a small number of universities to escape competition from the sector as a whole by creating an ossified research funding system. This will protect them from genuine research competition. It is rather like having a small premier league but no prospects of relegation from or promotion to it. This will not be in the long-term interests of the breadth, quality or relevance of the UK research base.

In Northern Ireland, we are in limbo as we are between the first period of devolved government and the anticipated elections this year. We intend to use the time available by working with ministers and local politicians to shape a system of meaningful higher education reform, despite the flaws in the white paper and its flagrant disregard for the needs of regions outside England.

Gerry McKenna is vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster.

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