Education: View From Here

Every increase in numbers going to university is welcomed but only by one half of the official mind. The other half is uneasy
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OVER THE past two decades two crises have crept up on British higher education. The first is the "funding crisis" which obsessed, indeed overwhelmed, the Dearing Committee last year, and which continues to obsess the Government. Free higher education abandoned last year (or, to be more accurate, fairly-free-at-the-point-of-use higher education); premium (i.e. top-up) fees conceded next year?

This crisis is clear. Universities and colleges are under funded to the tune of...? Well, you can pick almost any figure, but pounds 500m is probably not an understatement. In any case, the figure is so high that no one realistically expects it ever to be rectified. It is the price we have had to pay for wider access - and deep down many of us are prepared to accept that it was a price worth paying.

The second is the "quality crisis". This is much trickier, mainly because no one agrees about what this crisis consists of - or, indeed, whether there is a crisis at all. One component, of course, is the resurfacing of the old "more means worse" complaint..

Every increase in participation is welcomed - but only by one half of the official mind. In the other half the atavistic unease increases: surely the well of ability must run dry soon? The abandonment of the formal binary distinction between universities and polytechnics has not really eliminated the old academic snobbery, whether expressed through the higher education funding councils' efforts to reserve research for the worthy, or pejorative headlines in newspapers about courses in kite-flying or Asian cookery.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) may lay off a Cambridge already bristling at the futility of teaching quality assessments and academic audits - but only to come down even harder on "new" universities, especially those with more innovative ideas and raise the university status threshold even higher. As a result, the Bolton Institute of Higher Education, and other aspirant universities, have to pass tests never imposed on the former polytechnics, and demonstrate quality assurance procedures only observed in the breach by many "old" universities.

Another component of the "quality crisis" is that the universities' own position has been difficult to sustain. In the context of under funding, they have been crying wolf but, in the context of quality, they have consistently denied that under funding has had any impact on academic standards. They have been half-believed, which probably explains why successive governments have been complacent about under funding. After all, why pay to fix what isn't broken?

A third component is the rise of the audit society - in which higher education is a sideshow; the action is in the health service.

Today's instinct is "if it moves, audit it". Having abandoned planning, officially because, as with all socialist dirigisme it has been consigned to the dustbin of history, but really because we lack the political will to generate adequate resources to make it work, audit is all that is left. The alternative, respecting the autonomy of institutions like universities, or trusting professions like doctors or lawyers, is unthinkable. The State's retreat is a feigned one.

For higher education, the slippage from institutional autonomy through collective self-regulation to bureaucratic control is already well advanced. The QAA is looking more like the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) every day. The QAA's plans for appointing, in effect, Inquisitor Inspectors have been abandoned - for the moment. But traditional peer review is clearly doomed.

Once the quality of courses was assessed against their own objectives;now national "benchmarks" are being developed subject-by-subject. Next stop - a national curriculum for higher education?

To say this, of course, is to risk being consigned to the dustbin of history oneself. In the present age of accountability, who really believes in the freedom of universities - perhaps not even the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals? What possible objection can there be to identifying excellence in teaching (and, next stop, naming-and-shaming mediocrity?), or allocating research funds according to the Matthew principle - sorry, merit? But the danger, which no one seems to recognise, is that regulation will stifle innovation; audit will smother ingenuity. Observed from afar, British universities already look over-regulated, over-compliant - and risk-averse.

There is a balance to be struck between accountability and creativity. Too much of the former, and there is nothing worth accounting for.

Of the two crises that have crept up on higher education, funding is a real crisis - but no one bothers to find an answer; quality is a phoney crisis - but there are already almost too many answers.

The writer is Vice-chancellor of Kingston University