The logic is: parents must pay

The explosion in the demand for higher education has enriched the lives of millions, says Chris Price. But a move towards the American mass market system is inevitable
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The Independent Online
Next week the Dearing Report on the future of higher education finally appears. The leaks, however, have been copious; their main message is that tuition fees are to be reintroduced into British universities. More interesting will be the direction that Dearing sets for the next century - will Sir Ron and his committee recommend an American market model of massive participation, a wide diversity of universities and levels of tuition fee, and a seamless robe between "further education" and "higher education"? Or will they favour a more traditional European state model of low tuition fees, clear distinctions between academic and vocational routes, and public funding for most of university and college costs?

The funding crisis exists because of the massive expansion of student numbers, driven by two trends over which governments have minimal control - global economic and technological competition and upward social mobility. In justifying public funding for higher education, governments talked of national economic survival in a new technological age; but pressure for expansion was also driven by social pressures. Universities are not just in the business of education and research; they also provide a social initiation ceremony from adolescence into adulthood. This social function was a cheap option for one in 10 of each age group; now that one in three is involved, it is very expensive. The logic is that parents and students will have to make up the difference.

It will be a revolutionary idea for the English professional classes to swallow because they have always regarded the privilege of free tuition at university as a right. Indeed the more affluent of them have been willing to invest in expensive "public" schooling to obtain for their offspring a free and exclusive university education, if possible at Oxford or Cambridge. The irony is that many of the poorest students, currently almost 500,000 of them each year, have always had to work their way through college part- time to get a degree and pay tuition fees for the privilege. One of Dearing's tasks is to bring greater equity into fees policy.

The last comprehensive report into higher education was produced by the Robbins Committee 35 years ago. Robbins assumed that Britain needed a larger university elite but within a system and a curriculum that was essentially more of the same. Though it recommended funding all qualified students who wanted to go on to higher education, it predicted only a modest increase by today's standards. It believed that staff-student ratios could be protected and took the new and expensive residential universities in our cathedral cities as the norm; only eight technical colleges in the big cities were raised to university status.

Within two years, a different agenda emerged and more relevant modernisation of higher education began. The Open University was introduced by Jennie Lee and Harold Wilson against bitter opposition from the vice-chancellors; and the burgeoning courses in further education were reformed by the incoming Labour government into more than 30 polytechnics.

The Robbins Committee, therefore, for all its talk of expansion, was deeply conservative; because it came at the end of an imperial era, it failed to understand the future needs of either the economy or of our society. The committee would have been astounded that in less than 30 years' time, country after country would be setting targets of putting 80 to 90 per cent of all young people into post-secondary education and training. Dearing comes in a different world, with Britain facing a more democratic and more competitive century. His task is to persuade universities to readjust their mission in the world away from the past and towards the future.

Universities always face a difficult task here, simultaneously training the young for the future and trying to preserve the wisdom of the past, and, as Adam Smith pointed out, they have a tendency, like all collegiate guilds, to be run in the interests of the guild members - those of the dons rather than the students. In the aftermath of Robbins, Britain's best research departments remained some of the best in the world, especially in pure science. But other physicists, chemists and biologists defended crumbling empires, unaware that the old subject categories and boundaries were becoming meaningless. Dyed-in-the-wool mechanical and electrical engineers took far too long to understand that new computer hardware and software would change their intellectual horizons for ever. The leading edge of research shifted inexorably from the laboratories of the universities to those of giant multinational companies. The social scientists were little better. Many of them, sucked as undergraduates into the intellectual excitement of student revolts of the late Sixties, subsequently retreated into an easy academic existence where they continued to explore increasingly irrelevant agendas.

In the real world the demand for graduate skills was growing fast, especially for those of managing the new information technology; and a burgeoning demand for higher education was emerging as the 11 plus disappeared and that peculiarly English poverty of aspiration began at last to fade. Demand for higher education was further fuelled by the slump of the early Eighties. College and university became both a likely route to a job and a sensible alternative to the dole. When, in 1979, the Conservative government offered the universities the choice of taking in more students by increasing efficiency or reducing their intake, they mistakenly chose the second, easy option. Students spilled over into the polytechnics which expanded willingly and were thereafter used by the government as a foil to force the old universities to follow suit.

But this socio-educational explosion, which was now enriching the lives of millions of young people and adults, worried the Treasury. It was an open-ended financial commitment. The Treasury looked for other cuts but little money was saved. Pressure for student growth increased inexorably, as the new graduate parents who had benefited from the Robbins expansion insisted their offspring went to university. The demand seemed unstoppable. Nor was it possible to stem the flood by raising entry qualifications. Although high A-level scores were always needed for the better universities, the system was now so diverse that there was always a place somewhere for the determined applicant. British universities had never been particularly fussy about entrance (or indeed exit) standards. To fulfil their elite social role, Oxford and Cambridge long retained easy, coachable entrance exams and Oxford had kept a fourth-class honours degree for its intellectually frail young sportsmen.

One in three of every age cohort, together with hundreds of thousands of adults who had missed out in the past, were now enjoying privileges quite recently reserved for an elite. The Conservative government (quite rightly) encouraged this trend by ceasing to pay universities a block grant and giving them extra money for each student recruited. For the polytechnics, which had always been funded at a lower rate, the new funding system was a godsend; they doubled in size over 10 years through cheap and cheerful expansion. When John Major released them from the grip of local councils, gave them the same measure of independence as the older universities and mass baptised them with university titles they found it even easier to recruit students.

Though the resulting mass higher education had become very popular with the students, expansion could not continue. The Treasury clamped down and froze student numbers. This made the financial problems worse. The government dared individual universities to break ranks and charge fees unilaterally; the vice-chancellors consistently refused to do so. So, since neither Labour nor the Conservatives wanted to alienate students and their parents over an election period, Sir Ron was called in to find a financially sustainable strategy for the future. The certainty is now that it will involve parents and students paying more; and that a further shift will take place away from the state-funded European tradition towards the American market model

Christopher Price, a former MP and chairman of the Commons Selection Committee on Education, recently retired as principal of Leeds Metropolitan University.