V-c peer wants strength in depth, not a thin veneer of excellence

As her Greenwich time ends, Baroness Blackstone tells Matthew Reisz why coalition reforms will fail

October 6, 2011

Like many others in the sector, Baroness Blackstone believes that the government's higher education reforms are in need of serious revision. But her status as both a long-serving vice-chancellor and a former education minister leaves her well placed to comment on the changes.

In particular, she wants the coalition to drop its AAB proposals, which will see the places taken up by students with the best A-level grades removed from general quotas, freed from the cap on numbers and opened up to full competition.

The former Labour minister said that this would lead to an increasingly stratified sector when what was needed was "high quality... across the board, not a few world-class institutions at the top".

This belief is reflected in the pride she takes in having built up the research programme at the University of Greenwich, where she stepped down as vice-chancellor last week.

"I don't believe in a university without research," she said. "The concept of a teaching university is complete anathema to me."

Veteran view

Baroness Blackstone can now look back on 45 years in higher education.

She taught at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education, served as an adviser in the Cabinet Office and played a senior management role within the Inner London Education Authority before becoming master of what is now Birkbeck, University of London from 1987 to 1997.

She has witnessed the vast expansion of the sector, a shift of funding from taxpayers to students and ever-increasing efforts by UK universities to recruit internationally. Indeed, in all these areas she played a crucial role as minister for education and employment from 1997 to 2001.

Yet today she sees major causes for concern. Although increases in fees may lead to a drop in demand, Baroness Blackstone is "more deeply worried about the way the policy has been implemented".

"It is wrong that the institutions to which the most privileged young people go are able to charge more and so have a higher income than those to which many people from more disadvantaged backgrounds go," she said.

"I'm all for differentiation in research funding, because some universities do more and better research. But I see no reason why institutions that have to work harder to do their teaching should have less money."

She warned that things were "going to get even worse if you create a system that is so hyper-selective it is stratified all the way down".

She added: "I hear from some people in the top universities that they couldn't teach people with two As and a B - they've all got to have three As. If that's the case, there's something deplorable about their teaching."

Part-time problems, foreign exodus

Along with a general danger of creating "super-elite" universities, Baroness Blackstone points to two more specific anxieties.

"It is clear that many part-time and mature students will go to their local universities," she said. "Some young people want to study away from home and should be encouraged to do so, but we owe it to the others to provide for them. I don't see the system taking that adequately into account.

"Furthermore, we recruit students from all over the world, but only a small proportion go to the top research institutions. If we don't sustain quality across the system, we'll end up with fewer overseas students, who are a benefit to us in more ways than one, whatever the Home Office seems to think."

Although it was she and David Blunkett, the former Labour secretary of state for education and employment, who controversially shifted away from "the tradition of the taxpayer paying for everything in higher education", Baroness Blackstone has both principled and pragmatic objections to current policy. Labour's alternative proposal for a £6,000 fee, she said, was a "reasonable compromise".

"I also believe the system that has been put in place will eventually crack as a terrible deal for the taxpayer, because the extent of defaulting will be so great," she added.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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