1997 - nightmarish, funny, disastrous but, above all, educational

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The Independent Online
It was an eventful year. Helena (now Baroness) Kennedy produced a report on further education and education's Mr Fixit, Sir Ron Dearing, on higher education; the new Labour government decided to phase out grants and introduce a pounds 1,000 tuition fee; and an inquiry began into whether Oxbridge should keep its privileged funding. We asked eleven higher education experts what was the worst and best thing to happen in 1997. Some of them changed the question. Here are their replies.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

"The worst thing was on 23 July when the Education Secretary announced students would have to pay tuition fees from the 1998 academic year. The administrative nightmare of this decision was immediately obvious and five months later we're still sleeping through it. I wish the Government had delayed implementation of this policy until 1999. Is it too late to change the time scale?

The best thing was the Kennedy report on widening participation in further education. At last we have an education report of vision which emphasises the need to break down the compartmentalisation of the British education system that has dogged us for decades. We now have the template for an inclusive education system on a lifelong learning basis in which status, privilege and purchasing power play no part."

Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and chairman of the Commons select committee on education.

"The best thing was seeing Stephen Twigg defeat Michael Portillo in May. The worst thing was getting six points on my driving licence for speeding."

Laurie Taylor, sociologist, media don and visiting professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London.

"One of the funniest things that happened was the way students kept messing everything up. As a result of the announcement that a pounds 1,000 tuition fee would be charged from autumn 1998, some students rushed to apply to university in the current year rather than have a gap year. The Government had to backtrack to give those students another year. Baroness Blackstone ran backwards, nearly disappearing up her own ass, trying to placate an angry public. Now, all of a sudden, the Government is faced with the fact that students just aren't applying to go to university next autumn. Students have always been bloody revolting but here they are severely embarrassing the Government by showing they hadn't worked out their new policy properly.

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford.

"The best and the worst thing was the election of the Labour government.

It's obviously good to see a government that takes education seriously, that wants to broaden access, and, at least, talks about inculcating greater ambition in schools, that manages to mention intellectual excellence and has some idea that Britain is capable of producing excellence on a small scale, even if not competing with the US over the whole range of academic and research life.

But the Dearing report is intrinsically a disaster because it provides bureaucratic solutions to problems that are partly - in fact, quite largely - the result of an overcentralised and over-bureaucratic approach in the first place. It appeared to have been written by people who had no understanding of how universities worked, who were utilitarians of a Gradgrind persuasion and who ought not to have been let anywhere near higher education. The Government compounded this disaster by rushing in to take away the maintenance grant and to impose a fee system which plainly no minister understood or had worked out the consequences of. The Department for Education has long been a disaster area. The Government's apparent inclination to allow them more control rather than less over higher education is exceedingly bad news."

Geoffrey Copland, vice chancellor of the University of Westminster

"The worst thing is the vacuum we're faced with over the collection of tuition fees. Local authorities are charged with telling students what they're going to be liable for. That process will take a long time. So, there will be a lot of students who will turn up and no one will know what they should pay. We won't get any money and our cash flow will be affected. It's going to pit student against university. The best thing was turning a deficit into a healthy surplus.

Ted Wragg, professor of education at the University of Exeter

"The worst was the decision to re-inspect primary teacher training courses and the elaborate framework attached to it, which resulted in universities being inspected twice within a year and the second time being coded under so many cells that it was extraordinarily difficult to make sure you passed on all of them. It was mayhem. There was a huge amount of bureaucracy, endless visits from inspectors, paperwork that had to be prepared and then prepared again in a different form, and the stresses and strains on people when people not only get inspected but then inspected again in a very short time.

The best thing is the students. Despite the national gloom and doom about fees, I think what makes universities is the student population. In my own case, our teacher trainees have lots of enthusiasm and energy and ideas and commitment. Every time I work with them I find it refreshing. Every new student group is a reassertion of why universities are supposed to exist. Institutionally, universities are under the cosh these days. But the students are probably more earnest than when I first came into universities. I find the earnestness very engaging."

Professor Ivor Crewe, vice chancellor of Essex University

"The best thing that happened was the clear statement made by the Dearing Committee that there was a major funding crisis in higher education. The worst thing was the House of Lords debate on Oxbridge college fees. If anyone needed proof that the House of Lords is a bastion in defence of privilege that needs reform, that was it."

Sir Christopher Ball, director of learning at the Royal Society of Arts and former warden of Keble College, Oxford

"The best thing that happened was the Kennedy report. And the worst thing was the inability of the nation to have a serious debate about the issues involved in Oxbridge college fees. The Kennedy report was spot on about the need for a campaign for learning, the serious need to widen participation and the recognition that a nation's well-being is linked to the average learning of all its people, not just the elite. The Kennedy report got it almost all right. It was a miracle.

The Oxbridge debate hasn't started yet, but it'll come. The challenge thrown down by some of us for a justification of why the most able should be favoured with an extra investment of public funds - the challenge of explaining that hasn't been met yet. The reason is it can't be. It was a challenge set down in measured language in the Dearing report. Because it was in measured language no one took any notice of it. All I did was to say the same thing in language which the newspapers were prepared to put in their headlines.

When I talked to Oxford bursars, I said: `You'll win this time round, you always do win in the short run. It'll be a fudge and you can see the fudge actually happening. But in the long run, you'll lose. So, start planning for life without college fees because, if a Labour government isn't ready to do it, a Conservative government will do so in time.' There are some anomalies so anomalous that even Britain has to sort them out."

Dr Mike Fitzgerald, vice chancellor of Thames Valley University

"The best thing was the election of a Labour government. The worst thing was my mum died."

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University

"The best thing was the Government's policy for primary schools. It's a brave and important new initiative of David Blunkett's. The aim for 80 per cent of children achieving a specificed level in literacy and 75 per cent up to scratch in numeracy by the end of this parliament is a really big change. It signals an intention to give children a good start in life irrespective of their beginnings. It lays the obligation on primary schools to bring all children up to functional levels of literacy and numeracy. In the past our primary schools have been content to encourage children - those from higher income homes were speeded on their way and those who found learning difficult from lower income homes had excuses made for them. The new policy gives us the basis for a much fairer society. At the moment primary schools exaggerate the differences between children.

The worst thing was the Kennedy report. Its attempt to widen access through weighting the funding towards the poorer areas and those with lower qualifications will distort the system. It's too blunt an instrument. The Kennedy funding is likely to go disproportionately to colleges, such as those in London, which are already receiving extra funding. It would be better to target money to specific projects. If one wants to take further education to the people, one needs to fund it directly. The aims of the Kennedy report - increasing access - are right. It's the suggested means that are wrong."

Roderick Floud, provost of Guildhall University

"The best thing was being able to pay a bonus of pounds 100 to all staff in recognition of their efforts over the past 18 months. The worst thing was the death of David Weeks, head of sociology, who was one of the mainstays of the university and died suddenly in his late forties."

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