UK urged to pursue ‘diversity’ by cherrypicking US system

Cambridge v-c believes selective policy adoption would strengthen UK higher education. By Melanie Newman

October 2, 2009

The UK should adopt a policy of “deliberate diversity” in higher education modelled on a mixture of the Californian system, which has three distinct tiers of institutions, and the UK’s current arrangements, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge has said.

In her annual address to incoming students, Alison Richard also said that Cambridge was interested in academic excellence over and above such issues as social mobility.

Speaking on 1 October, Professor Richard explained that the Californian system could provide a solution to the challenge of maintaining the sector’s diversity.

In California, community colleges, state universities and the University of California are differentiated by “governance, levels of instruction, standards for admission, transfer of students from one segment to another, and funding”, Professor Richard said.

Private universities and colleges without state funding also operate alongside them.

“The tripartite design of the system [has] limited the ambitions and opportunities of individual institutions while encouraging them to create their own distinctive excellence within their particular set of responsibilities,” she said.

She suggested that a “middle ground” between the Californian system and the UK environment, which she warned would start to “erode existing strengths” if left unchanged, would encourage institutional diversity.

“I call this middle ground ‘deliberate diversity’. It is in the overwhelming interest of this country to find it,” she said.

The vice-chancellor called on First Secretary Lord Mandelson to ensure that his forthcoming strategic framework for higher education did more to help qualified students move within the sector, including transferring from colleges of further education into universities.

“Pursuing this initiative will not be easy, as the uneven experience of student transfer in California has made clear,” she said. “Credit transfer mechanisms are still under development here and risk unleashing calls for standardisation that undermine autonomy and the very idea of institutional diversity.”

The sector also needs investment in research infrastructure, distinct from competitive research funding, she maintained, “to allow the concentration of funding necessary for international competitiveness”.

Both public and private investment in higher education must continue to grow over the coming years, she said.

Professor Richard stressed that undergraduates should be selected on the basis of academic ability, rather than on their background or other factors.

She said: “At Cambridge our goal, fervently espoused, is to admit the most talented students and ensure that neither family income, nor misplaced ideas about not fitting in, nor poor advice from schools, discourage such students from applying or stand in the way of their admission.

“Social mobility, gender balance and ethnic mix are not driving forces in the process – they are not our primary purpose – although they are surely important outcomes for society, and for Cambridge.”

Last year, Professor Richard said that universities should not be “engines for social justice”, which was seen as a response to Government pressure on Russell Group universities to recruit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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