Part of the undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the Dearing report may be due not to its inability to solve higher education's funding crisis, and the shameful gazumping of its fees package by the Government, but to its failure to express the scale of the coming transformation. Its title, as a result, is a contradiction: on the one hand "higher education", still a comfortable (even conservative) category; on the other the "learning society", a radical project with unknowable consequences.
So post-Dearing higher education has been left dangling on the brink, unable to scramble back to the familiar safety of an ordered system clearly distinct from further and adult education, "corporate (and community) class- rooms", the mass media and the culture industry; but also unable to move decisively forward into a new environment of open learning and research, in which universities and colleges no longer have a privileged position. It finds itself, in Matthew Arnold's evocative phrase, stranded between "two worlds, one dead the other struggling to be born".
Dangling, or stranded between two worlds, is not a comfortable place to be. And it is unclear how much help the Government will be in its forthcoming White Paper, despite having set up Bob Fryer's national advisory group on further education and lifelong learning - little in terms of money, and perhaps not a lot in terms of fresh ideas. So far, not much has come out of the Department for Education and Employment to suggest that it recognises that higher education is about to be transformed. Ministers seem to have been banging on more about quality (threats to) than about access (widening of).
Of course, they (and, by implication, the Dearing committee) may be right. Perhaps the period of quantitative "consolidation" imposed on higher education by the last government, in the form of a freeze on expansion of student numbers, will now be followed by a period of qualitative "consolidation", in the form of a freeze on expansion and constrained horizons. The action will shift to further education, as the Kennedy report argued earlier in the summer, despite the fierce, rearguard resistance of the vice-chancellors - or to the burgeoning training industry, where Training and Enterprise Councils have survived the change of government almost unscathed.
Universities may be able to keep up with the cutting edge of educational advance only by offering more sub-degree courses (Dearing's priority) or DfEE-favoured initiatives such as the "University of Industry" - in other words, by emphasising activities that are, if they are honest, peripheral to their main mission and which it is not clear they will be allowed to emphasise: on cost grounds further education will be preferred for sub- degree courses, and universities may have to settle for being junior partners in larger, "training" consortia.
Perhaps this assessment of higher education's prospects is too gloomy. Perhaps the step change, on the brink of which universities and colleges currently tremble, will be successfully made. But it is a useful corrective to the naive and triumphalist rhetoric with which some leaders in higher education argue that the university will automatically become the leading institution in the knowledge/learning society.
In this new kind of society, two things will be clear. First, because it will be suffused by knowledge and learning, all successful organisations will need to be "learning organisations" - and, perhaps, "researching organisations". Second, its knowledge and learning will not necessarily be the academic knowledge and critical learning that higher education prizes. Lifelong learning will be too important to be left to universities hobbled, as they are, by intellectual inhibitions and social exclusions.
This will demand a double response from higher education. The first part is that universities will have to become less autonomy-minded, and embrace accountability - not in a spirit of obsequious subordination, but of creative partnership. Many of the key new activities in which universities will engage will not be things they can do on their own. They will need to form coalitions to manage these hybrid activities.
But - second and, perhaps, more important - universities will also need to dig deep to recover their core values as liberal and critical institutions. Their role in the knowledge/ learning society will be not merely - or even mainly - to create the science and transfer the technology on which that society will depend, but to confront the urgent social, intellectual and moral agendas it will generate.
Peter Scott is professor of education and director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Education at the University of Leeds.Reuse content