Willing to hear the lure of the wild

July 4, 1997

A few days ago, fund-raising for our Lincoln campus development, we organised several showings at the local cinema of The Wild and the Willing. Made in 1962, it centres on a (fictional) university in Lincoln, a stone's throw from the cathedral.

Although made in the "Angry Young Men" genre of its time, by today's standards the students appeared not at all wild, and only slightly willing. Good manners, upper-class accents and jolly public school japes by both students and begowned staff gave the impression of a period piece.

Yet the audiences loved it, and in a contemporary rather than an historical sense. Most comments that I overheard seemed to suggest that, yes, universities were not that much changed since the early 1960s, and that was part of their appeal.

Today's Lincoln University is a less dusty and wood-panelled institution, and the vice chancellor more likely to wear a suit (unlike the film's rather austere vice chancellor, who appeared to wear his gown in bed). But the underlying reality, it was generally surmised, probably had not changed much.

I spluttered that universities really were different, most students are 21 or over when they start their courses. Part-time, work-based and other forms of distance provision for lifelong learners had radically changed traditional studenthood. The bescarved school-leaver having the rag-time of their lives, usually in some arcadian residential campus location, was only part of the story. Or so I argued.

Maybe the public knows better. A peculiarity of British higher education is that as the student population becomes more diverse, universities try and become more similar. We hear considerable talk about "niche markets", "regional universities", and the dynamic complex impact of Europeanisation and globalisation, all mixed in with a general celebration of institutional diversity.

But where is the evidence? It seems to disappear at the first hint of The Times's league table. This annual publication may spike more diversity tendencies than any other factor, largely because it is read avidly, not least abroad. And there is little else for many consumers to go on.

Universities, to insiders, feel like rapidly changed, more business-like and open institutions. But to those outside these may seem no more than superficial changes.

Scratch a post-1992 university and there is a good chance you will find a pre-1992 university trying to get out. Better, perhaps, to be a second or a third-rate Oxford or Cambridge in a conservative market. The notion of a good university, and not just in The Times, still seems narrow and conformist.

The history of the so-called civic universities is hardly comforting. They started with shiny visions of a system based on science and its application, professional training, and an ethic of local and regional service. But many found it difficult to resist academic and mission drift.

Markets and league tables reinforce the change. We forget that the binary system was abolished in 1992 not to overcome differentiation but to promote it. The problem is that stratification systems take their lead from those at the top. Yet it can take a long time for institutions to move up or down and we seek conformity as a form of credentials.

We must find countervailing funding and, above all, cultural incentives to reward alternative models of a good university. Otherwise there is every prospect that the post-1992 universities will go the way of their civic predecessors.

Perhaps it would help if we had alternative but authoritative tables, league or otherwise, in which the categories match the differing conceptions of a good university better than do those used by The Times. A little competition would surely be a good thing.

Roger King is vice chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.

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