Two sectors, one voice

June 26, 1998

UNIVERSITIES are a great industry whose product is crucial to the economic, cultural and social survival of the nation.

Yet that industry has more problems than ever before. External authority insists on a huge increase in supply while, at the same time, reducing the money available to fund that supply. "Academic" education has probably never been less respected by the prevailing culture. Redbrick vice-chancellors respond gleefully to government proposals to cut the extra funding for Oxford and Cambridge colleges. They are like the Chinese middle classes who responded gleefully to the fall of the aristocracy in the revolution, never realising that they were next.

Universities have an even greater problem: raw material. This industry depends exclusively on one staple raw material: the supply of intelligent, well-educated students. That staple is a fragile product. It takes a long time to grow. It needs specialist care and treatment. It is very expensive to nurture and easily blighted. It too is being denied funding. It too is in crisis. So the end-user is in crisis.

Yet there is no common meeting point where end-user and supplier can meet, agree an agenda and lobby for the cause of academic educa-tion. This is all the more marked because the division between those who produce undergraduates and those who give them degrees has never been greater. Crisis should have provoked both parties to seek out their natural allies.

Three examples from a long list illustrate the widening gap between supplier and end-user. First, A levels are now set by quasi-government agencies and the increasingly self-perpetuating oligarchy of the examination boards, and marked by school-teachers. They are the qualifying examination for university entry, yet universities have never had less control over them. Second, it is now unthinkable and impossible for a schoolteacher or lecturer to swap sectors. Third, we live in a world where committees, working parties and forums exist with a fecundity that makes nature's provision of aphids appear paltry. Most frightening of all, there is no committee, working party or forum where those who produce undergraduates can talk effectively with those who teach and prepare them.

The gap exists because both parties are so divided within themselves that each could self-destruct. Universities cannot agree with themselves, never mind with anyone else. A sector that contains Oxford and Cambridge at one end and the newest university of all at the other does not need someone to divide it and rule: it does the job quite well on its own with no outside assistance.

Schools are no better. The secondary education system ranges from independent schools where more than 90 per cent of candidates gain A or B grades at A level to schools where hardly anyone gets five GCSEs at C grade or higher. The secondary sector has no more effective unity than the tertiary sector. It is split between independent and maintained, grant-aided and comprehensive, 11-16 schools, 11-18 schools, sixth-form colleges and so on.

Both sectors are inadvertent victims of the divide-and-rule principle, with a good dose of self-inflicted wounds. GCSE and A-level league tables have sent schools chasing after one hare, research ranking has sent universities chasing after another, in opposite directions.

Yet there is something that unites the independent school, the sixth-form college, the grant-maintained secondary school, the grammar school and the 11-18 comprehensive that sends pupils to university. They are united in caring for academic education and its product. The potential for unity is there between everyone who sends pupils to university and those who receive them. It is there for anyone who believes that the 30 per cent of our young people who should gain university degrees are one of our most important assets.

We need, more than ever before, a forum where suppliers and end-users can meet and decide on their common agenda, and then present that agenda to every power broker in the country, political or other. A brave government would set up such a forum itself, accepting that it would tell government things it might not want to hear.

A sensible university sector would hasten such a forum. Someone needs to speak for the potential graduate populace of UK plc, and universities on their own do not have a grand record so far. A problem shared, in this case, is a power to influence that is more than doubled.

A sensible university sector and a sensible schools and college sector would recognise that those with one interest have never more needed the power to speak with one voice. They would set up a forum regardless of government.

Either way, it has to happen. Such a group would be small. It would represent the complete university sector. It would represent the complete range of schools, independent and maintained, who send more than half their pupils to university. It would draw up a common agenda. It would present a united front for university education. We have never needed such unity as we need it now.

Martin Stephen is high master of Manchester Grammar School.

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