Take stock of big issues

March 1, 1996

In her statement to the House of Commons and her article in The THES last week Gillian Shephard maintained that a huge and exciting agenda faces all of us with an interest in higher education.

How right she was. Such an agenda should involve taking stock of the big questions, which notably include considerations of access, content and finance within the whole sphere of post-compulsory education. I deliberately use the broader term "post compulsory education", because the term "higher education" no longer equates with the full spectrum of teaching, learning and research now undertaken in United Kingdom universities, let alone in their connected feeder institutions (which provide about 16 per cent of all higher education courses). Nor does the conventional terminology take sufficient account of the increased blurring of the boundaries between higher and further education, between original research and worthy scholarship, and between the academic and vocational spheres of post-compulsory education.

The secretary of state understandably expressed the hope that in future universities and colleges would continue to develop, while preserving their best traditions. Yet as the Dearing committee will almost certainly conclude, such a pious statement may not accord with reality in at least some of the 104 institutions in membership of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, especially those where the authentic traditions of higher education have not taken root or where the exhilarating experience of demand-driven expansion has led to some qualitative deterioration.

Whatever other recommendations are eventually made by the Dearing committee, it seems clear at the outset that the conventional terminology used to describe what happens in the wide variety of institutions concerned needs to be adapted if it is to accord with the new realities.

On questions of access, the time has come for a period of conscious consolidation in order to prevent any further dilution of quality. It strains credulity to hear claims that the academic standards of all universities are as high today as they were within the smaller sector in 1979 when there were half as many newly qualified graduates gaining first degrees.

There may have been no slippage in the best departments and the best universities, but it is clear from the figures published under the clearing-house arrangements that academic entry qualifications have been lowered, at any rate in those institutions and departments offering unpopular, difficult or unfashionable courses.

One implication is that there should be no more adulteration of the A level "gold standard" or of the entry requirements for certain courses in universities. Rather than allow this to continue, it would be much better - at least in some cases - to close down unattractive courses or departments. General National Vocational Qualifications, which are a worthwhile addition to the spectrum of qualifications attained by school and college students at 16 plus, should be taken for their own sake in view of their vocational and employment benefits rather than as dilute alternatives to A level qualifications for entry to university. Another obvious implication is that the Higher Education Funding Council funding methodology may need to be adjusted to relate the level of institutional funding more directly to current establishment levels of students and academic staff.

Turning to some of the issues of educational content, the academic leadership of universities should be encouraged to give even greater emphasis to the maintenance of quality in scholarship, teaching and research, and to do this by insisting upon high objective standards which can be demonstrated by the use of rigorous exams and external assessment. In this respect it is healthy that universities and departments should compete in terms of academic rigour and excellence in order to recruit and retain the best students. They are more likely to do this if ministers respect institutional autonomy in our universities than if they are bound up in the red tape of Higher Education Funding Council quality controls.

The increased diversity of the sector is partly caused by and reflected in the growing emphasis upon new methods of teaching and learning, such as modular courses, credit accumulation and transfer, and the distance learning potential of new technologies. These methods of delivery are well suited to the needs of part-time students, but institutions should be wary of applying them too generally to the detriment of the more traditional, collegiate experience. Such education is better delivered by the excellent Open University, which has been designed and developed for the purpose. The striking diversity of the new universities since 1992 and the impact of new educational technologies are turning some of them into local and regional resource centres for advanced learning. Yet such a brave new world should be kept within bounds and self-imposed limits should be set upon the growth of a cafeteria curriculum.

As for the most difficult issues of finance and affordability, the future financing of post-compulsory education will best be based upon the principles of a mixed economy. For universities as institutions, this implies the need to develop a wide variety of financial sources - block grants, research-related funding, contract funding and private endowments - with less dependence upon the unit of resource. For students, it suggests a steady move away from the present level of reliance upon grants towards greater reliance upon loans and even some direct contributions from students and their families on a means-related basis. Universities will still have problems in financing their capital expenditure and equipment needs, but the difficulties could be alleviated if a policy of conscious consolidation is adhered to and the Private Finance Initiative is fully exploited.

Nigel Forman is Conservative MP for Carshalton and Wallington, and a former minister for further and higher education.

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