Too tired to turn new ideas to profit

November 15, 1996

Dear Ron, please do something, particularly about the money. This might be the best way to sum up the submissions sent in to the Dearing review of higher education by today's deadline. The consultation phase is now over. The consultation form made available via the Dearing committee's pages on the THES Internet Service should not now be returned. But the work is far from done. The many sub-groups set up to look at particular issues are still beavering away, with powerful members of the committee sent off to hone their particular axes.

The issues they are considering include: should there be a pay review body for academic and related staff? If so how, if at all, should the Government be forced to honour its recommendations? Should our higher education system be redesigned on the Californian model with designated two-year, four-year and research degree-awarding institutions of tertiary education? Should there be regional grouping of institutions with a sufficient degree of central control to prevent what is perceived to be wasteful duplication, at least within groups? What sort of framework should there be for vocational qualifications and how far should it intrude on the autonomy of institutions? Above all, who should pay and how?

These are curious times. All this honing is going on in semi-private with puffs of smoke emerging now and then from Japan, Australia or the United States as the Dearing caravan passes through. There are hints from this or that speech or casual meeting.

Meanwhile there is public stasis. Government and Opposition have taken a pledge of at least semi-silence. Higher education unions have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action but with no confidence that they will achieve quick success, and the grim prospect of having to blight admissions next in order to make an impact. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has plans to reform its method of funding teaching, but put off doing anything about it until Dearing has reported. And rumour has it that Sir Ron is finding it all more time-consuming and difficult than he expected.

Against this background the Society for Research into Higher Education held its 30th-anniversary conference last week on the theme "The end of the university: 30 years on". It was marked by a palpable fear that activities which were once more or less the exclusive province of the university are about to escape into a global knowledge-based edutainment industry which would bypass the academy, removing its status and role, its brightest stars and its most lucrative customers.

It is not that people do not see the potential opportunities for higher education. The vision of a higher education system managing lifelong technology-assisted learning set out by Alistair MacFarlane, retiring principal of Heriot Watt University, is becoming familiar. The evidence of growing demand for higher education from the nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, sketched out by Malcolm Skilbeck in a preview of OECD's forthcoming ten-country study of higher education, should provide grounds for optimism.

People just seem too tired to relish the challenge and too nervous of the difficulties involved in trying to secure change in academic institutions to be at all eager to take the necessary risks. Inertia prevails, breeding today's mood of wait and see. It is a dangerous mood, inviting impatient policy-makers to impose their own plans.

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