Leeds Metropolitan University vice chancellor Leslie Wagner says elitism is the major cause of the "tensions and dysfunctions" afflicting higher education.
Delivering his inaugural lecture yesterday, he said that Britain had a university system which had become mass in its size and structure but which remained elite in its values. "The recent external changes of numbers, structures, finance and governance have not been matched by appropriate internal changes of values, purpose and activity," he warned.
The core problem was a "fundamental ambivalence" about change which was also reflected in government through politicians who were now almost alone in defending A levels as the major route in to higher education.
Most universities, said Professor Wagner, were guilty of ambivalence by affirming the romantic intimacy of higher education experienced by previous generations.
"The clash between elite values and the mass system is a daily feature of academic life," he said. The alternatives were to return to an elite external system or to change the internal values of universities to enable them to reflect better the mass world in which they operate.
"The more desirable alternative for me is to match the diversity created by the changes in the external life of higher education by diversity in its inner life too," Professor Wagner said. "The diversity of the student client le which has been achieved since the late 1980s will only be sustained if it is matched by diversity in the structure of the courses and awards."
To achieve this a wider definition of scholarship and excellence must be embraced. The elite system rewarded only one form of excellence -- that related to research. A genuinely mass and diverse system would apply the term excellent to all the dimensions of scholarship and most importantly to teaching.