Tinker, tailor, tamper, why?

Sir David Watson left cold by tenth wave of reform in the sector during his career. Hannah Fearn writes

December 3, 2009

Politicians are guilty of an "astonishing" amount of "tinkering" in higher education, and in their latest efforts to plan for its future have "laboured to produce a mouse".

Speaking at a round-table event last week, Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London, said that over the past five decades he had witnessed "wild lurches" between expansion and contraction in the sector, "radical changes of mind" about the status of universities, and constant moral panic over "dumbing down".

Lord Mandelson's policy framework, Higher Ambitions, was the tenth such reorganisation the sector had been subject to since he entered it as an undergraduate in the 1960s, he said.

Every five years, politicians attempted to "throw the system up into the air and hope it comes down in a different shape and with a different set of priorities".

"The amount of political activism and organisational tinkering with higher education that has taken place in the UK is astonishing by both absolute and comparative standards," he told guests at the Higher Education Policy Institute's round-table dinner at the Royal Society for the Arts in London.

Despite all this, higher education continued to thrive, he added.

Sir David said the framework document, which sets out the Government's plans for the sector over the next ten years, uncritically accepts the status quo - for example, on research concentration - and attempts "moral suasion" designed to force universities and business to behave in the way the state wants.

The idea that universities should be subject to a "food-labelling" system boosting the amount of data available to would-be students was "a good populist trick", he added.

But in their focus on the student as consumer, politicians underestimated the extent to which the system was formed by academics' and students' interest in education itself.

The route that Lord Mandelson proposed was "full of risk", the most obvious being the validity of the data used, Sir David argued.

University marketing departments would pick and choose the information they wished to be judged on, and the sector should prepare itself for a resulting "data war", he warned.

Another risk was what the data seemed to promise but could never deliver.

"You don't just purchase a degree, like you might a frozen meal or a car. You have to make it your own through putting in more than a fee," he said.

Sir David urged universities to strive to be more independent, become more flexible in the way they deliver degrees and be "less precious" about institutional status.

"The sector 'gangs' such as the Russell Group and Million+ are proving unhelpful here," he noted.

He also urged the academy to be "more courageous - especially in the way in which we use the unrivalled levels of autonomy that British institutions enjoy".

"This may be one of the very few silver linings in the current economic climate - individual institutions are going to have to decide what is important to them and get on with it."

The round table was the second in a series of biannual debates to be hosted by Hepi.


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