Success the Cambridge way

October 18, 1996

The university I went to seemed a bit run down. Most of my friends took vocational courses and went straight on to job training. I did history which turned out to be equally vocational.

There were not enough seats in the lecture rooms so we had to sit on the stairs until attendance dropped off, which it did quickly. I never spoke to a lecturer. There were scarcely any course options. Book lists and handouts were rare. I had only one tutorial per week and no seminars. I worked on my own most of the time. None of my six tutors was a full-time lecturer and only one of them had a PhD. Most of them found the small-group teaching accommodation so inadequate that they preferred to teach us in their own homes. In my final year all the tutorials were taken by a first-year postgraduate. Some of these tutors had very large teaching loads, though the terms were short. On the rare occasions that essays were collected, they were never returned.

If this had been Coketown University in 1996 it would probably be looking at an unsatisfactory teaching rating from the Higher Education Funding Council. In fact it was Cambridge in 1960 and I thought it was wonderful. With some fairly significant reservations (no project or seminar work; an anti-business ethos in the university), I still do.

We can learn more about efficiency gains from a privileged old ivory tower than from any number of modern consultants. Another lesson is that quality judgements based on objective criteria are of very little value. And a third is that any higher education reform should be applied across the board: the only real duality likely to emerge from attempts to institutionalise diversity would be "good universities" and "not-so-good universities".

Take efficiency first. "The staff are working very hard, but the students are not" is a common cry from teaching assessment panels. "You must find ways of delivering your courses more economically," enjoin university managements. Postwar Cambridge had these problems cracked. I and the great majority of my fellow students worked very hard researching and writing weekly essays; the weekly tutorial was the deadline and the spur. The tutor gave us immediate, detailed feedback. Terms were shorter and more intense than in most other universities, so that students had longer vacations (which could have been used for projects and placements) and staff teaching and research time was separated and packaged more efficiently. The shorter academic term makes sense today. But the industrial relations-driven approach that most universities rely on to deliver efficiency concentrates on pushing up staff contact hours. It ignores the true measure of productivity, which is the extent to which students are stretched.

What about quality criteria? The combination of brittle objective measures and superficial impressionism in vogue would have been of little help in evaluating my experience. We could better help students to reach their full potential if we taught them less often and through different means. The decline of tutorials has been brought about not so much by the reduction in resources as by over-structured courses and over-specialised lecturers.

A department of 0 students with ten full-time academic staff could actually provide all its students with an hour-long, one-to-one tutorial per fortnight, and a ten-student seminar per fortnight, plus six hours of lectures per week. It would require 167 staff hours per week.

If postgraduates and other non-established tutors taught 47 of these individual tutorial hours, full-time academic staff could support this structure on teaching loads of 12 hours per week. Students would have seven hours per week of contact, would produce an essay for their one-to-one fortnightly tutorial, and also prepare work for the fortnightly seminar.

Finally, to diversity. There is a radio game called Mornington Crescent. I have a vision of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals playing a variant called Binary Line. Groups of vice chancellors arbitrarily take up and discard various passing trends and postures in their search for institutional advantage, until the new universities finally elbow their way forward to grab the crumbs labelled "vocationalism" and "teaching-only university" falling from Sir Ron Dearing's table. Whereupon the old universities cry "Binary Line!", and win the game. The l se majeste of 1992 will at last have been righted and the class divide in British higher education firmly restored - probably under a Labour government.

Those of us who work in new universities should hope that Sir Ron will discourage our kamikaze elements from bringing this about. The Dearing recipe for the future should not opt for a shallow vocationalism, "skills-based" courses, or a teaching-only staff ethos for the new universities. This surely would lead to a new binary line - not a widening of opportunity for our young people, but a narrowing of their horizons at the point of entry. We would end up with two types of university - not research-oriented and teaching-oriented, but merely good and not-so-good. For "diversity" read "duplicity" and self-deception.

All our universities need some reform - in relation to Foresight, curriculum priorities, a seamless link with further education as well as with private secondary schools, and so on. The best way to maximise the impact of higher education, and to strengthen equality of opportunity, is to reform our most prestigious universities and then make them models for all. The Cambridge of 1960 might not be a perfect model (after all, it did produce half the current Cabinet), but it would not be a bad place to start.

Tony Hepburn

Professor of modern Irish history and director of the graduate research school at the University of Sunderland.

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