Strength in uni-ty

October 20, 1995

Why," asks Simon Jenkins on page 17, "are our universities so timid?" In his book, Accountable to None: the Tory Nationalisation of Britain, published this week, he has rehearsed the sorry saga of the Conservative government's nationalisation of higher education. His verdict is perhaps a little too harsh. Higher education, particularly the old universities, did resist and indeed did, to some degree, manage to limit the controlling ambitions of Whitehall: so much so that our universities retain a degree of autonomy much greater than others in Europe or than state universities in the United States.

But the question remains a good one. Universities have shown that when they act in concert they can wield considerable power. That they seldom do so is however only partly the result of inadequate leadership or lack of resolution. It is also because higher education is not a monolith. Many wide and varied interests are embraced within our universities and colleges and the range is getting wider. It is, as it should be, a diverse system meeting many needs from astrophysics to access courses.

While diversity is a strength, the need for solidarity is not over. The process Simon Jenkins describes was only partially successful and those who remain dissatisfied with the degree of central control established over higher education have not gone away.

This is all too evident from Higher Education in a Learning Society which is reported in The THES this week (page 1). This report emanates from a seminar paid for by the English funding council, the Department for Education and Employment and the Economic and Social Research Council. Its recommendations are redolent of the desire for further and more detailed control including a central planning agency which the report says should have the means of "influencing the self-governing communities in universities" in order to force change.

Impatience in Whitehall with higher education institutions' reluctance to change is understandable. There is, of course, an enormous need for professional training, skill training, education for all manner of work and, since employers in this country are bad at doing it, there is huge opportunity for higher education to expand into providing our society with such services. In addition there is every reason to encourage students to cut their intellectual teeth learning things that are useful as well as interesting. There is also a need, as the Association of Graduate Recruiters have pointed out in their recent study Skills for Graduates in the 21st Century, to ensure that graduates develop self-reliance and the ability to sell themselves effectively. There is indeed room for change.

What is less understandable is the eagerness with which a number of academics appear willing to go along with the report's recommendations that change should be forcibly imposed by a central planning agency. This appears to be the price they are willing to pay for additional resources from the Government. However, it sits oddly with some of the papers in the report, such as that of Robin Middlehurst who argues for a more self-confident academic profession which is self-regenerating and which has the independence and discretion which "obviates the need for close, detailed and costly supervision . . ."

The Faustian deal implicit in the report's recommendations is, as such deals are, an illusion. Whitehall will happily accept control: the Treasury is most unlikely to provide the sweetener.

What is additionally alarming about this document is its stunted vision of what higher education can offer. Using Singapore as its preferred model, it recommends "an overarching strategy which dovetails policies for education, training and employment with policies for industrial development." Higher education is to be bent to the economic wheel. Fine, but not sufficient.

As the information revolution with its global reach and dematerialised wealth creation rolls forward, tomorrow's jobs will be created by today's students in ways we cannot know and cannot plan for. The report warns against squandering public resources on "production of the world's most highly educated dole queues", and suggests shorter courses with more vocational content, yet it is precisely those graduates who cannot find sufficient niches in the old graduate employment market who are likely to push forward new ventures and transform small enterprises.

The report expects too little of higher education in another respect. While it bewails the paucity of students "motived by a love of learning", it scarcely touches on the role of higher education in inspiring such love, in fostering curiosity-driven study. Yet even in a narrow economic sense it is here that universities make one of their most important contributions.

New ventures being created now are built on intellectual foundations laid perhaps 30 years ago by people driven above all by the love of finding out. In this age of knowledge based industries, Lord Annan's famous view (1964) that "higher learning is quite properly quite useless", looks seriously askew.

The paradox is that higher education will best contribute to economic success not if it is geared closely to narrow assessments of the economy's needs but if it is left the freedom to encourage intellectual risk-taking. Yes, higher education could be more responsive but it will be better if it is responsive to the multifarious demands of students and employers rather than to the planning requirements of some new quango. Such responsiveness cannot be created by central intervention; such change must be home-grown or it is nothing. This report makes the mistake of believing the man in Whitehall knows best.

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