Riding shotgun into frontierland

October 18, 1996

This week The THES celebrates its 25th anniversary. Those 25 years have seen a revolution in British higher education and The THES, riding shotgun, has grown and prospered. Our special anniversary section reviews a quarter century of expansion - higher education's and our own. But what of the next 25 years?

The future is not a given to be discerned. It is for the making. Some of the shaping forces will be beyond the control of nations or governments, let alone the academic community in any one country. But some will not. Nor are the two separable: action and reaction intertwine. The next 25 years are expected to bring population expansion worldwide, and in its train global warming. The effects are uncertain but the predictions chilling - famine, flood, and large-scale migration pressures. These are expected to coincide with a period of static and ageing population in this and other developed countries, where life expectancy is rising and motherhood is not as popular an option as it was among well-educated women.

Countries like Britain may seek to wall themselves against immigrants: home secretary Michael Howard, for one, evidently perceives electoral advantage in such a stance. But they will none the less contrive to welcome newcomers who bring rare skills - or simply promise to look after us in our old age. High-flying academics and domestic servants will be the shock troops storming the bastions of little England.

Universities have always been in the forefront of international contacts. Intellectual skills travel easily. For example, Russia (page 9) is now suffering from western thirst for talent. India, with its universities in some disorder, loses more of its most brilliant minds than it would like. Hong Kong may not remain hospitable to original thinkers after next summer.

However grudging the Home Office may be over visas, increasing numbers of academics and students, particularly research students, are entering this country despite the high costs of studying here. Many will contrive to stay or to return eventually. Just as our intellectual capital was boosted in the 1930s by Jewish refugees, so it is being boosted now by intellectual migrants.

Those working in higher education increasingly collaborate across national boundaries. The Internet and the English language render frontiers irrelevant. European funding for a raft of programmes is deliberately designed to break through national isolation.

Nor is this the only way in which universities are more international - and more ethnically diverse - than the surrounding society. Ethnic minorities' participation in higher education is disproportionate to their share of the relevant age group. Despite accusations of discrimination, the traditional ladder of opportunity is in good repair.

Over the next 25 years it is a fair bet that higher education will be one of the main forces for greater international collaboration, a countervailing force to narrow nationalism. How much tension this generates will depend on the degree of chauvinism governments espouse.

If international collaboration, particularly across Europe, increases in the next 25 years, it could mean a weakening of nation states and resurgent regional loyalties. Paradoxically, internationally-orientated higher education could also provide the focus for regions. The desire for local centres which can foster local business and culture is visible in the determination to establish a university presence for Cornwall and to get the Lincoln campus up and running. This pressure will be sharply increased if research funding is distributed to encourage regional centres of excellence, as the Labour party apparently intends.

The second major pressure bearing on higher education in the next 25 years is likely to be the demand for qualifications. An alarming bipolar pattern is developing in the economy with the gap widening between those who are well qualified and working and those without either qualifications or work. Far from graduates being a drug on the market, it seems a degree will become increasingly essential to reach the lower rungs of the ladder. Nor will a degree gained between 18 and 21 serve for life. Demand for updating will continue to rise.

There have been periodic panics during the past 25 years that demand for higher education was falling. Falling participation rates were used to help justify the drastic 1981 cuts. Today, evidence of slackening demand is pounced on with alacrity as evidence of the deleterious effects of the policies of the day. In Australia falling applications in Victoria (page 10) suggest that charges for higher education are beginning to deter school-leavers. But in the past such blips have been just that, and all developed countries have moved to mass participation, the blips themselves producing new initiatives to attract the customers.

Only if higher education were to draw in its skirts and decide to concentrate on traditional academic activities rather than responding to an eager market would it be likely that expansion would cease. Some universities, persuaded by Mary Warnock's dark scenario (page 18) may choose such a posture but most will not. Much more likely is that expansion will continue and that once again new rafts of institutions will grow to university status, following in the fine tradition of mechanics institutes, whisky colleges, non-denominational foundations, colleges of advanced technology, polytechnics, institutes of higher education. The aspirants are there, with Bolton, Nene, Cheltenham and Gloucester and Suffolk in the front rank.

How exactly the future unrolls will depend on the detail: in particular on the money. Top-up fees are now ruled out. The moment when universities might have decided to go down that path is over except in the unlikely event of a Conservative election victory. The Labour party has issued warnings of penalties that none is likely to defy. That does not, however, rule out fees or charges of some kind. Few believe free tuition will survive another quarter century in those few countries where it remains - principally Britain and Germany. Even France charges an enrolment fee.

Charges are likely to be controlled and collected centrally and they may not therefore produce extra money for higher education. Charges in whatever form will alter the market. Once people have to pay they will shop around.

Private providers may find it more worth their while to compete. The University of Buckingham, with its two-year intensive degree programme, may find its time has come. American educational entrepreneurs, backed by their own accreditation agencies, are already nibbling at the edges. And many private colleges are waiting for a more open regime in which to expand their activities.

If going away to study becomes as expensive as some of the figures worked out by the vice chancellors recently suggest, distance learning, now a comparatively expensive option, will become much more attractive, particularly if universities and colleges have become tatty and depressing as a result of continued downward pressure on unit costs. As Keith Scribbins warns (page 14) following his recent visit to Disney's back garden in Florida for the United States community colleges conference, the entertainment industry is poised to sweep into the education market.

What all this amounts to is a prediction that the next 25 years will see yet further growth for higher education and much greater diversity of institutions, regions, courses, students. In short a world of opportunity for the whole higher education industry - and for The THES.

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