Thoughts of an HE new year

December 24, 1999

What are your hopes and fears for higher education over the next millennium? The THES asked...

THE BISHOP

The year 2000 will be a critical decade in higher education. After such enormous changes in the past ten years there is a need for stability.

As higher education becomes more important to a wider cross-section of society, it is increasingly important to educate school students and parents, as well as mature applicants, in the decisions they have to take and what is riding on them. A general knowledge of higher education cannot be assumed.

Academies and institutions have to re-emphasise the belief that it is in the national interest for the higher educational process to develop the whole person. People bring broader benefits to society than simply economic contributions. We may well have to reconsider how we measure higher education in this respect.

Widening access will require constant monitoring and continuing creativity to ensure success. We should aim to reduce the number of those who get their fingers burnt in higher education. Their voice is not always heard.

The single greatest challenge would appear to be maintaining a unitary funding system of higher education in this country. If some do not want to, how might we judge the alternatives?

The Rt Revd Alan Chesters is bishop of Blackburn and chairman of the Church of England Board of Education.

THE STUDENT

Students are struggling. At the end of a century that brought free education, the backlash has begun.

Degrees have become more desirable, and obtainable. But, in addition to very high debts, students still risk being unemployed. Students' issues are sidelined and problems are dealt with inefficiently. The government and the general public look on the student world with scorn.

However, education is improving and universities have a bright future. The fee-paying status of students means that they are in a position to complain if the courses do not come up to scratch.

Specialised courses are being introduced and soon we will be able to study practically when and how we like.

Education is becoming more career-oriented and while there is the risk that university will become more about CV than IQ, it is a positive development that the necessity to learn readily transferable skills has been recognised.

With resources derived from fees and the fact that universities are not so bound by the public sector, universities can make decisions to improve and meet students' needs.

Frances Gudgeon is a third-year history student at Kingston University.

THE ACADEMIC

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the academic profession is that of reproducing itself. The problem is twofold.

First, the shift in universities from a system of self-governance based on trust among competent professionals to one based on a presumption of mistrust and incompetence. This has resulted in audit after audit and seemingly endless paper trails. The audit process takes precedence over the quality of academic output.

This has produced a culture in which the prime concern is to be able to claim that if something has gone wrong it is someone else's fault. This is time-wasting, depressing and ecologically irresponsible.

Second, grants for research students and academic salaries are pitifully low. Graduates, faced with a choice of moving into well-paid employment or of spending a further three years of accumulating debt, followed by an uncertain future, opt for the former.

The challenge is to get the message across that both these issues must be seriously addressed.

Ray Hudson is director of the Centre for European Studies of Territorial Development at the University of Durham.

THE VICE-CHANCELLOR

By all objective indicators, the UK's university sector is successful. It has absorbed serial reform. Despite a substantial reduction of public subsidy to its core business, it has risen to the challenge of widening participation.

But, the perception is that all is not well. The evidence that "more means different, not worse" has not been communicated convincingly. The sector's Canute-like reluctance to engage in a serious debate about how information about relative performance can be explained intelligibly in a context of fundamental change means that the legitimate task has fallen to a national media whose main driver is that bad news maximises sales.

Two challenges lie ahead. First, further expansion cannot be delivered on the cheap. We cannot short-change our paying customers. To do so is immoral and cynical, especially if we wish to offer a quality experience.

Second, increasing interventionism is a fact of life. Only a few universities can argue effectively for increased autonomy to deliver their aspirations. The challenge for all universities, facing the rising tide of policy "initiatives", is to have the courage to say "No!". Success will depend on absolute clarity about, and commitment to, institutional mission and purpose.

Diana Green is vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.

THE COLLEGE PRINCIPAL

This has not been a great millennium for further education. We have not been around for much of it, though it is fair to say that most people have been underwhelmed. Even the present secretary of state for education, the first we have had who has worked in our sector, is reported as trusting only a few college principals. Some of his predecessors were just as disparaging (and seriously ill-informed). Keith Joseph told us we ought to be open in the evenings, John Patten wondered why we could not offer a few BTECs along with A levels.

Working against the grain of a deeply entrenched education system is never comfortable, but the benign neglect of the 1960s and 70s was better than the demonic orthodoxies all too evident as the century draws to a close.

At some point we will rediscover education and see that a mass system must function differently from an elitist one. We will have associate degrees and a logical credit structure; teachers will get better pay and we will have legislation that aims to increase the number of learners, instead of just shuffling them about.

Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College.

THE TRADE UNION LEADER

Academics have always bridged a difficult divide - they receive public and other funds from people who demand to know it is well spent, yet they seek the greatest autonomy in driving knowledge forward.

The balance has moved - possibly dangerously - to the first. The range of interventions and the extent of regulation is squeezing out the far-sighted and the innovative. Short-termism and risk aversion have produced low aspiration, and we face the next years with little of the sparkle that made poor pay less intolerable.

The assurance that love of the job binds people to it has eroded massively. But the real defections are now those of the spirit. Amid the mountains of bureaucracy, deep in the gorges of multiple inspection, is a profession that believes the guts of the best of academic endeavour have been ripped out.

They hate to admit it but they know standards are falling. They see students sometimes in penury. They would not encourage their children to join the profession - perhaps the toughest judgement of all. If this is not turned around, the United Kingdom will lose one of its all-time great achievements.

David Triesman is general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

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