We must move on, not just stand still

May 29, 1998

I suspect that we are a country that likes to say no. Caution is part of the national character. We find it difficult to alter systems and traditional patterns of work. Yet we move on since we accept that even to stand still is to go backwards. Eventually we will join our European partners in one currency. The same cautious characteristic is prevalent in our educational planning.

Rather unfairly, in the aftermath of the North Report, Oxford undergraduates are still prone to ask how many dons it takes to change a light bulb. Change ...? comes the incredulous reply! The issue of change is not problematic just for Oxford but for the country's further and higher education sectors.

Reactions to my open letter to David Melville (THES, March ) on further and higher education interface were pertinent. David Melville concludes (THES, May 1), "the challenge is to look creatively for new ways to forge new kinds of partnerships that bring synergy between our sectors in this new learning age".

In some respects though, the responses confirmed the incipient national malaise: the resistance to change. Those outraged by the suggestion of a closer local partnership in financial management, quality control and strategic planning between colleges and university, were suspicious of potentially predatory university arrogance. But the principal issue being proposed commits institutions to partnerships for a new educational era.

Throughout the present century, the UK has accommodated an educational system concentrating on traditions and structures at the expense of the individual. At key moments, as in the debate about comprehensive education in the sixties, student centredness has forced itself on to the agenda. Radical concepts then have been realised in practice.

The individual is at the heart of lifelong learning. Many teachers recognise that students progress at different rates from one another and at different rates in different subjects. Today's context differs from the 1960s in that it is framed by the revolution of information technology. Yet, we persist in maintaining a system of further and higher education distinct from each other, in which hurdles are created at defined stages: at 16, students take GCSE; at 18 GNVQ or A-level; at 21 the degree.

This is administratively convenient but educationally dubious. Might it not be possible for further and higher education institutions to jointly facilitate and track the progress of the individual student? This would require joint investment in information technology and joint curriculum planning for multiple entry and exit points.

A national curriculum would be detrimental to advances in new learning in higher education, but a regionally agreed curriculum within a national post-16 qualifications framework could advance the requirements of each learner in an integrated mass further and higher education network.

Dearing, Kennedy and Fryer have made such policies achievable. Conventional structures of management and organisation can frustrate development. Prejudice and tradition can obfuscate progress. That is why the new relationships must be underpinned by legal contracts. Despite a limited sacrifice of some aspects of institutional autonomy, there would be an imperative to maintain individual college identity and specific regional provision. Such a development would not bring a return to old regional bureaucratic ways of trading off one course against another. It would, rather, foster corporate local planning through the interface of university and colleges.

Like the introduction of the Euro, the proposal is fraught with potential political dangers. The funding councils might warn institutions to walk before they run. But the important element is that we move forward rather than stand still.

Michael Scott is a pro vice-chancellor of De Montfort University. He writes in a personal capacity

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