Will Labour follow where Sir Ron leads?

August 8, 1997

Apres Dearing, le deluge: staff cautiously optimistic, part-time sector and Europeans feel neglected, free-marketeers blow a big resberry

"Wait for Dearing" has been the response to any ideas for change in higher education for the past year. Inevitably, the issue of funding has captured the headlines, not least because the Government did not wait for the ink to dry before rushing out its alternative proposals. But many other issues are addressed, some of which have required urgent consideration for some time.

I lecture at one of the largest universities in the "post-92" sector. I am also a Natfhe branch officer and can testify to the effect that the increasing pressure on resources of all kinds has had on the working lives of my members. I am sure they would all agree with Sir Ron that "their contribution to the achievements of higher education over the last decade is under-valued". We wait now to see if the implementation of key recommendations starts to redress the balance.

The proposals on teaching quality are of special interest. My university has been proactive in attempting to enhance the quality of teaching. Staff are encouraged to register for an MA in learning and teaching, and a peer observation scheme has been in operation for a few years. A few weeks ago, the Natfhe branch proposed that the university set up a teaching and learning unit to further enhance the status of quality teaching. We hope that Dearing's proposed national Institute for Learning and Teaching will now tackle this issue nationally and involve lecturers' representatives in developing a system of national accreditation.

For the past few years, most of my members have felt that the only way to be valued, or to gain promotion, was to produce published research. We also very much welcome Dearing's recognition of the "need for funding to support the research and scholarship which underpins teaching in those departments that do not aspire to be at the leading edge in research". The level of such funding, and the mechanism for delivering it, is of course critical. Decisions must be made soon if institutions are to make informed strategic decisions on the next research assessment exercise.

I particularly welcome the report's emphasis on openness and accountability in governance. It is a disgrace that it has been possible for institutions (happily not my own) to remove elected staff representatives from their governing bodies. Certainly in the post-1992 institutions, there seems to be a surfeit of governors who are solicitors or accountants, who know nothing about the true purpose of higher education. Wider representation from the communities we serve would be refreshing.

The waiting is over. Was it worth it? Not if the Government and employees ignore the key recognition of the need for "professional, committed members of staff who are appropriately trained, respected and regarded". We, all of us, need to persuade them to follow this lead.

Neil Williamson is branch secretary of Natfhe, De Montfort University, and chair of Natfhe East Midlands Region.

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