Beware the sausage machine: Opinion

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The Independent Online
We are blessed with good higher education in the United Kingdom. People often take its virtues for granted, but let us recognise and praise them. It is efficient; once accepted, most students succeed in the courses they take - something that cann ot be said of a great many universities in continental Europe. It is "learner friendly", in that staff and students know, respect and like each other. And, by and large, quality is broadly consistent.

The last thing needed now is the wrong sort of change, whether driven by panic or, perhaps more likely, by the sort of year upon year grinding-down too common in the public sector. Already public funding per student has been reduced by 26 per cent in real terms over the last five years.

But things must change, and it is easy to see why. The proportion of young people going into higher education has increased from 15per cent to more than 30 per cent in seven years. Expansion of part-time numbers has been almost as fast. You cannot more or less double intake at that speed without inducing strains.

Many universities and colleges have catching up to do. Their libraries and other facilities are full to bursting. The present pause in growth gives them a precious chance to sort things out, and the wise ones are doing so, making full use of all that modern technology has to offer.

Moreover, many universities and colleges have clapped-out buildings and much property that is shabby from undermaintenance and overuse. With good advice - and governors often help greatly here - they have to set about providing uniformly decent facilities for all their activities. Those who do best plan for the long haul.

What needs to be put in hand for the medium and longer term?

First, funding sticks out a mile as needing to be tackled. There is the paradox that Britain has one of the most expensive higher education sectors in the world in terms of public expenditure per full-time student, and at the same time many of those students are at or near the poverty line. Another paradox is that well-off families in Britain actually receive more in education subsidies than poor families, because they use universities much more and are so heavily subsidised to do so.

The vast majority of taxpayers have not benefited from higher education and cannot be expected to go on funding its expansion. Students will have to pay more and will have, in particular, to start contributing to the cost of their courses, but they must be able to defer payment until their earnings enable them to do so, without hardship, through the tax system. That nettle has to be firmly grasped, and the sooner the better: there is a great deal of argument and discussion to be done before this kind ofchange is understood and accepted.

Second, teaching needs to be made fully professional. All university teachers should be properly qualified to teach and good teaching should be properly valued. Universities have been very slow about this. Research is still very often accorded quite unreasonable primacy over teaching, not least when it comes to promotion.

Third, increasingly universities and colleges must become leaders of education in their localities, leaders in the sense of giving leadership to the whole network of colleges and schools, not to mention employers, who provide education for the whole population in their areas. A university pre-eminent in this contributes quite as much to our country's well-being as one that has a number of departments which are held to do research of international importance.

Fourth, universities and colleges of course have to make sure that they give every bit as much attention and priority to students in part-time and continuing education as they do to young full-time students - and the funding councils must be sure that they encourage them to do so. Easily said; not so pleasant to do when it means an evening's teaching at the end of an already busy day.

Finally, a word on diversity and quality. Without quality, higher education is nothing. Without diversity, you have a sausage machine that treats students as "inputs". Both quality and diversity are the key to the future. Those who sneer at "diversity" as a cover for "second-rate" are not only snobbish but foolish; those who undermine the guarding of quality risk pulling down the whole building about their ears.

The writer is Director of the National Commission on Education.

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