Quite right; it makes no sense to call the higher education system, better or worse until we know what it's for. But a discussion of what it is for is just what the Government does not want. It has become fixated on inspectable aspects of the process of pushing students through the educational system, but for all its enthusiasm for quality assessment, the Government cannot tolerate any real discussion about what this high-quality tertiary education is for. If it did, it would see too clearly that pluralism and control freakery don't cohere.
Take the extremes. Suppose universities exist to promote intellectual competition, both so as to achieve the technological pay-off we expect from new knowledge and for its own sake; in part, we just want to discover how clever people are, how much they can be taught, what they can find out about the world when they have learned all we can teach them. It's not an incoherent view, and a lot of people, especially people teaching in universities, think something very like it. Take that view, and it is a terrible waste of time to have more than about 3 per cent of school- leavers going into higher education: you don't draft the overweight and out of breath into the Premiership.
Suppose in contrast we think that the modern economy needs everyone to be taught how to teach themselves - both the skills of the job they happen to be doing and what you might call the hyper-skill of knowing how to set about looking at what new jobs will require. Take that view, and participation in tertiary education by 50 per cent of school-leavers seems a rather limited ambition, and drawing hard and fast lines between further and higher education seems entirely arbitrary. As to the content of tertiary education and the setting of such an education, it seems unlikely to require a stiff dose of classics in whatever cloistered calm is still to be found. Nor is it obvious it needs three years, or to happen all at once, or all in one place.
Try the same thought on the A-level syllabus and the A-level examination. For reasons entirely obscure to me, the Government is committed to the thought that we ought to have a school-leaving examination which has the virtues of the International Baccalaureate but which absolutely must not be the International Baccalaureate nor even a British interpretation of it. As to why not, we have an answer couched in the mystical terms of gold standards and cornerstones. But even the most pious might decline to be superstitious about a public examination; to be superstitious about one that is a rather recent invention, and which has been repeatedly altered in the past 30 years, is just peculiar.
It matters, however, for a couple of simple reasons. The first is that there is only one way forward for further and higher education, which is to acknowledge that we are seven eighths of the way towards recreating in Britain the American tertiary education system; we should get on and make mass higher education work properly.
To make it work properly, the Government has to do what does not come naturally and put up with the diversity that a mass system spontaneously produces. Obsessing over the question of whether a first-class degree is the same object wherever it is awarded is not an activity for grown- up governments; endlessly policing teachers and examiners verges on tyranny.
If pluralism gets taken seriously, some of higher education will be a bit like championship football - the urge to be first with the hardest- won results drives a lot of scientific research, and more than a few teachers keep up with their subjects because they don't like the idea of not keeping up with their colleagues rather than for any nobler reason. But vastly more will be quite unlike anything of the sort, which is good as long as nobody wants to sacrifice one for the other.
The second reason is that it is important not to give up on liberal education. The extent to which liberal education demands a broad school-leaving examination is debatable; the most plausible thought is that a lot of students will happily do two languages, two sciences, some history and some art, and a lot of others would rather do physics, more physics, maths, more maths, and some more maths - and so on. If we could stop thinking about gold standards and cornerstones, we might start to think about the sheer variety of interests, talents and ambitions our students display and to let one and three quarter million flowers bloom.
The writer is the Warden of New College, OxfordReuse content