Ray Cowell argues that seminal developments in recent years amount to re-inventing the role of institutions.
The international debate on the future of higher education ranges over a perplexing number of issues: quality, purpose, governance, size, structure, costs, funding and accountability, to name but a few. The unfocused nature of the debate reflects the need to rethink the fundamental relationship between higher education and society in the light of a scale of expansion and diversification unimaginable 30 years ago. Quite simply, higher education can no longer, on its own, meet the advanced educational and training needs of today's society. Its distinctive role is to set the agenda and to assure the quality of strategic partnerships.
In the early 1960s, at the time of the Robbins report, there were 113,000 students in higher education in England and Wales. Even in 1978 the Government projection was for 310,000 students. In 1994/95 there are 940,000 students. This has not just been quantitative growth. For example, "new" universities and their students have brought different missions and questions to bear on the traditional system, and, equally important, the world of business now has a much clearer, and more stringent, view of what it needs from universities.
In the 1960s there was an unspoken assumption that the relationship between higher education and society was broadly understood and that only an occasional "touch on the tiller" was needed. The University Grants Committee acted as a reassuring buffer between government and higher education. Today's irresistible financial and funding pressures on the system cry out for fundamental rethinking, if quality and relevance are to be preserved.
One encouraging feature of the current debate (stimulated in part by the Department for Education and Employment review) is that higher education has moved beyond the feeling of resignation of four or five years ago and is now looking for solutions rather than defence mechanisms. The so-called "donnish domination" of the system has been challenged by the many new stake-holders.
In Re-inventing Government (1992), Osborne and Gaebler, while critical of "privatisation", assert that the traditional providers of public services need no longer themselves deliver all aspects of that service but should focus their influence on the quality and equity of the service rather than the details of delivery. Local government, they suggest, should adopt a "steering", as opposed to "rowing", function, shaping the agenda and monitoring performance. This idea (based on American case studies of local government) could help higher education to recognise, and come to terms with, the fact that it is no longer a monopoly provider of advanced education and training and that it needs, therefore, both to define core activities and values and to work through external partnerships, coalitions and networks. This will involve universities in self-analysis, a new language for dialogue and in progress beyond either resignation or nostalgia. It will demand the "re-invention" of the very idea of a university.
In my view, the key "idea" for higher education for the Millennium and beyond is lifelong learning. The idea has many important facets. It recognises that first degrees are about "learning to learn", providing a foundation of core competences for subsequent personal and professional development in the era of "the portfolio job". This, in turn, implies that courses and curricula need to be devised in collaboration with other providers. Another implication is that higher education can best help business by establishing two-way streets of staff mobility, "people transfer".
Teaching companies and visiting professorships are two examples of such mobility. Building further on the idea, higher education needs to recognise the essential continuum of all post-school education, particularly at a time when further education is growing rapidly (28 per cent growth in the five years to 1997/98). This continuity needs to be reinforced through accreditation and quality assurance systems which are available to all categories of students, whatever their mode of attendance.
There are, of course, major resource implications. Universities can scarcely advocate lifelong and continuing education if they themselves are not available on a year-round basis. Similarly, the "lifelong learning" idea has major implications for the uses of information and learning technologies, the design and use of our buildings and the development and deployment of staff. Since many of today's universities are not only centres of leaming, but are becoming "learning organisations" in the managerial sense, this task of "re-invention" need not be impossible, particularly if we are prepared to take on board, for example, the contribution to the debate made by the CBI in Thinking Ahead.
In addition to the traditional core tasks of teaching, learning and research, there are a number of seminal developments in today's universities which reflect "re-inventive" thinking. Such thinking has been helped in recent years by, for example, the publications of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, the higher education sections of the report of the Commission on Social Justice and embryonic thinking about a "University for Industry." Almost at random, I offer ten examples, from my own experience, of what I regard as key developments: * The establishment in some universities of subsidiary trading companies, working within a strong corporate framework, to devise high-quality courses and materials, on a commercial basis, in response to the specific development needs of business and the professions.
* University accreditation of in-house company courses and of work experience towards, for example, MBAs and professional recognition - often within an NVQ framework and in partnership with one or more TECs. Such accreditation processes are often an integral part of a company's human resource management strategy.
* Regional and national higher/further education franchising networks, designed to widen access to higher education through localised versions of degree and diploma courses which take account of local manpower needs.
* The development of "virtual" libraries (or "learning resource centres") which are accessible, on a subscriber basis, to local businesses, which use databases, networks and state-of-the-art learning environments as part of their training and development programmes.
* The influence of European-funded initiatives on the curriculum and learning styles of many universities. The criteria for such funding often require the regional dissemination of information and good practice, with a focus on the needs of small and medium size firms. Some universities have developed centres which co-ordinate their European expertise for the benefit of both their students and their business clients, co-operating for this purpose with the chamber of commerce.
* The development of the long-established government-funded Teaching Company Scheme into a series of regional teaching company centres, where small and medium size firms can come together, in a university context, to share experiences and access university expertise, so as to improve their competitiveness.
* The involvement of universities with TECs, chambers of commerce and local authorities in the achievement of the National Targets for Education and Training, particularly those at NVQ level 4 or above.
* Extensive co-operation with the arts, particularly through the Regional Arts Boards, in the development and marketing of both mainstream and innovative activities. This sometimes includes a sponsorship role which brings professional expertise and perfommers into the university to work with staff and students.
* The commitment, in many universities, to the "Investors in People" programme, adapted to the culture of higher education and designed to achieve national standards of good practice and national standards in human resource management. In my experience, IIP acts as a powerful unifying influence on the various parts of the university community.
* The joint involvement, often through public/private sector partnerships, in bids for the various categories of National Lottery funding, with universities contributing their experience in widening access to advanced training.
All of these activities, and many more, have in common a commitment to the sharing of insights, experience and strategic ambitions between universities, their clients and government. The role of the university varies in each example, sometimes being that of a leading partner and sometimes playing a supporting role. They all involve, for staff at every level, a redefinition of their role within a "re-invented" university.
A period of "consolidation" is the time to think about the kinds of higher education which will be available after 1998 when "consolidation" merges into focused growth. By then, through the re-invention debate, and through a sharing of professional practice in such areas as those outlined above, we must be clear about the essential and core values which we need to take into the next century, and the strategic alliances we must forge in order both to preserve and develop those values. Without that debate, focused on "re-inventing" the universities in the light of the implications of lifelong leaming, we might, disastrously, find ourselves in 2000 and beyond still perplexed by a traditional and miscellaneous agenda rather than energised by new partnerships.
Ray Cowell is vice chancellor of Nottingham Trent University.