No matter the market, all universities must remain committed to producing knowledge, argues Patrick Ainley. Whether or not fees for English home students rise in 2010 after their planned review next year, three groups of universities are positioning themselves for "Surviving in an Increasingly Competitive Marketplace".
This was the title of yesterday's Times Higher -inaugurated conference for strategic thought in higher education management aimed seemingly at the 20-strong Russell Group of internationally selecting research universities, for which competition comes mainly from abroad.
The day before, however, the 1994 Group of 19 campus-based nationally recruiting and teaching universities also held a conference to make its market pitch. Using the Unite student experience survey and its research with student unions, the group showed that students at campus-based universities join more societies, play more sports and are more likely to be involved in their unions than those elsewhere. They also claim a wider social mix of students than the nerdily academic and posh elite above or the vocationally applied locally living students at former polytechnics below, adding up to a "more rounded experience".
Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, the coalition of the 32 clearing and training modern universities, recently relaunched itself as Million+, to emphasise its possession of the mass of all students. It is the only group hoping that fees will not rise, as few of its staff have any illusions about sustaining a research career by joining the elite.
There is also a fissiparous Non-Aligned Group of 18, while a few mixed- economy colleges and others bravely proclaim themselves "teaching universities" or "dual sector", FE and HE institutions.
The consolidation of the three main groups above is predictable because, having sold the pass by accepting the end of free higher education in 1997, most academics reacted to the fee rise in 2006 with all the community of a shoal of piranhas. They, like most of their vice- chancellors, pretended that there was no market if all fees rose to £3,000. This collective delusion cannot hold if the cap is raised or removed. Oxford University needs £20,000-plus per student annually just to cover its costs.
Not everyone can rise to this level, especially with market-managed consolidation already closing "vulnerable" schools and departments. With fees differentiated by subject and institution, more mergers, if not closures, of universities are inevitable, especially given the imminent demographic downturn and rising foreign competition. With the simultaneous retirement of the 1960s cohort of academics, higher education could soon be unrecognisable. Already, it is an open secret that widening participation on a reduced unit of resource has turned large parts into further education. But unlike FE, which is mired in mergers and privatisations, higher education does not face competition from ubiquitous school sixth forms. Instead, private corporations are offering degree- level accreditation recognised by Government, both for their own employees and as cut-price commercial enterprises in direct competition for overseas and home students.
So what can the increasingly divided "academic community" agree on as distinctively "higher" across the tertiary tripartism characterising it and against competence-based commercial offerings and further education- based foundation "degrees"?
Most academics subscribe to a supposed independence and criticality, testing concepts in argument and experiment, sustained by the notion of combining research with teaching - producing, rather than just reproducing, knowledge. Meanwhile, they continue their mission impossible of widening participation while maintaining quality.
They do this not, as they say in China, "because we are monks, we go on ringing the bell", but because many teachers aspire to enable new generations of students to adapt tertiary-level learning to their own needs in the same way that comprehensive schoolteachers once struggled to open secondary schooling to the mass of the population.
This is an old battle for general education that was squeezed out of further education by obsessional vocationalism and has been largely lost to the national curriculum in schools. It aims at what Cardinal Newman called "knowledge of the relative disposition of things". The lack of this, he wrote, "is the state of slaves and children".
Patrick Ainley is professor of training and education, Greenwich University. How a critical higher education can be sustained against market pressures will be discussed at a free afternoon forum on January 23 held by the Student Experience Network of the Society for Research into Higher Education at the Institute of Physics, London. Participants include Bob Brecher, Gary Day, Mary Evans, Roger Brown, Wes Streeting, Colin Waugh and Claire Callender. To book, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org