Some years ago the Government announced a target of getting 1 in 3 young people into higher education by 2000. It seemed an ambitious goal for a country with one of the lowest participation rates in the developed world and hordes of 16- year-old school-leavers. But it succeeded beyond anything it could have foreseen - or could afford.
GCSE, it is claimed, increased pupils' motivation and improved their learning skills. Alternative outlets for unqualified school-leavers dried up as the economy slowed down and, anyway, had new requirements for a better educated workforce. Earlier education reforms meant better educated parents, a key factor in rising expectations.
In the decade from 1981-82 to 1991-92 the number of full-time students increased by 52 per cent. In the last of those years alone the increase was 13 per cent. In the four years up to 1992-93 the rate of expansion was equivalent to 20 large universities. More than 30 per cent of people under 21 are in higher education in 1993- 94; 10 years ago it was 13 per cent.
Clearly the target would not only be reached, it would be exceeded if market forces were left to prevail. Something had to give - and it was the purse strings.
While the universities were going out, being fruitful and multiplying, the Government was doing its sums again. It has decided it cannot finance expansion at this rate, and so for the next three years there will be no growth. The numbers in higher education will continue to rise as a knock-on effect of previous expansion, but the intake of new students will remain at last year's level.
Thereafter numbers should rise again to achieve that 1-in-3 participation rate; the number of young people will rise as well, so the expansion will be considerable - and expensive.
If numbers entering universities are set to remain steady, and the number of those applying is only marginally up on last year, why is there so much talk of cuts? One reason is that there has been a progressive reduction in the money per student paid to the universities - more than 25 per cent down since 1989-90. Although there has been genuine increased productivity, there has also been crude cost-cutting, with an effect on books, buildings, staff and maintenance.
Some universities have been forced to cut their intakes, the penalty for earlier over-recruitment. And individual departments could be making cuts; there are financial incentives, by way of higher fees, for universities that take more science and technology students rather than arts and social science students.
While the universities balance and battle to hold their numbers until the next permitted phase of expansion, they are not merely marking time. Growth has encompassed more than mere numbers, and change has been the other defining feature of recent years.
More means different. More than half of those now entering universities are mature students over 21. Many do not come from traditional backgrounds, either socially or educationally. To the usual A-levels have been added a host of alternative entry qualifications - BTEC or other vocational awards, 'access' courses, 'prior experiential learning'. General National Vocational Qualifications are developing rapidly and it is predicted that they will soon be the qualifications offered by 1 in 3 entrants to higher education.
It is not desirable to offer only courses designed primarily for students who are 18 and have two or three academic A-levels, when so many do not. They know different things, can do different things, want different things.
To meet the demands of an evolving student body, developments are under way on several fronts. The number of part-time students has risen even more than the number of full-timers. Nearly half a million people in higher education are studying part-time - up 31 per cent in five years. This segment of the student population is likely to go on growing, as it is not restricted by government policy.
Course titles and content are pushing out the boundaries. Many universities are reorganising courses on a modular basis, allowing students to tailor their degrees from discrete but coherent blocks of knowledge. This development fits neatly with the trend towards an academic year divided into semesters which provide longer periods than current terms for the adequate study of modules.
Semesters offer other spin-offs. One is the possibility of a third, summer, semester (or, more correctly, trimester), making better use of university facilities and offering students the possibility of completing degrees in less than three years. A modularised semester system also facilitates credit accumulation and transfer through which students can build degrees at different times and in different institutions, studying sometimes full- time, sometimes part-time.
Some universities are not semesterising, not modularising - and not apologising. Prospective students face more choice than ever, and that choice includes the traditional face of higher education. Rapid change and diversity are characteristics of the system as a whole. Universities are different from one another, but not necessarily from what they were. For example, Bristol University has 10,000 students, only 700 of whom are part-time and 9 per cent mature. Of the 11,000 students at the University of the West of England at Bristol, 5,000 are part-time and 51 per cent mature.
Applicants will play this diversity in different ways. Some will throw off the shackles of old prejudices, attracted by the flexible courses, vocational emphasis, dynamic teaching and respectability of the new universities. Others will choose more narrowly, going for the older, more prestigious universities. For some the main thing is getting a degree, for others being an undergraduate.
Take time and take trouble over your choices, and don't apply to any place you wouldn't be prepared to go. We can all aspire, but some of us have to settle.
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