The suits tailor a parochial debate

November 3, 1995

Late last month, 250 of higher education's Great and the Good met in the august surroundings of the Royal Society to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Society for Research into Higher Education.

They debated the motion, that "this house prefers higher education in 1995 to 1965", which provided an opportunity of looking back and considering changes since the society's establishment. The quality of the debate and the short prospective papers, looking 30 years ahead, provides a good indicator of the success of the society in achieving its initial objective of creating a forum for and bestowing academic respectability on the (then) relatively new multidisciplinary field of higher education research.

The proposers of the motion, Graeme Davies and Baroness Perry, defended the assumption that change means progress by marshalling a formidable array of statistics demonstrating that higher education today is more accessible, efficient, democratic and responsive to the needs of students than in the past. The opposers, Peter Knight and Christopher Price, dismissed the sterility of this factual approach, and counter-attacked with rhetoric, passion and nostalgia.

The wider debate which mixed humour with elements of a more serious critique exhibited a number of remarkable features. First, despite one or two contributions on research, the focus of attention was teaching and learning, and more specifically, the changing student experience. Second, the average age of those present was probably on the wrong side of 40. The majority - which the young and jeans-wearing occupants of the room prior to our arrival were heard to dismiss as "suits" - were essentially judging the higher education system they helped shape and are now running. Third, while the wording of the motion was designed to polarise opposition, what emerged was some general agreement that against the undoubted gains since 1965 must be set a number of losses. Perhaps the best example is the paradox forcefully articulated from the floor by the youngest contributor, a part-time student and students' union officer, that, for students, empowerment is meaningless when poverty is rife.

To an outsider, the debate must have seemed a little parochial. In the prospective papers, too, the future shape of higher education is seen largely within the context of a United Kingdom rather than a global market although the potential impact of technological change is conceded.

Is it realistic to assume that in 2025 the shape and scale of higher education will be determined by national governments and limited by national markets? As Gareth Williams asks, when people are expected to provide their own pensions and pay for their own health care, why should higher education continue to be provided as a public service? Once the principle of free higher education has been jettisoned, the way is open for the state to withdraw public subsidy. Privatisation and competition will, by this logic, introduce the resources needed to provide a system of the size and quality for which people are willing to pay.

In 2025, shall we see the emergence of pan-European groupings, and institutions forging strategic alliances with commercial giants in the knowledge industries? Such a vision suggests a further change both in the definition of higher education and in its purpose. From the students' viewpoint will it be better in 2025 than in 1995? Let us hope it is more fun.

Diana Green is pro vice chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham.

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