View From Here: Peter Scott

A good case can be made for Britain now being the greatest academic `power' in Europe
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The Independent Online
LONG, LONG ago the cry was "more means worse". The novelist Kingsley Amis (embittered perhaps by his experiences at University College Swansea), public school headmasters, and The Times, all opposed the expansion of higher education in the Sixties on the grounds that it would inevitably lead to a dilution of standards.

How strange, therefore, that this fear, driven underground in the intervening decades of rising student numbers, should re-emerge when Tony Blair, who, like so many forty- and fiftysomethings, benefited from this earlier expansion, is Prime Minister and we have a Government that embraces the word "new" to the extent of including it in its own title.

Last week, the Evening Standard printed a full-page attack on all the "new" universities, the former polytechnics, in the capital because of guilt by association with the troubled Thames Valley University. They were accused of modish triviality in putting on courses with low academic standards to train people for newly emerging professions - despite the fact that, according to official measures of teaching quality, many "new" universities have outperformed the colleges of the University of London.

The Standard article is not important in itself. Its errors are too egregious; at least one of the "new" universities outside London to which the capital's allegedly slum universities are so unfavourably compared, comes consistently below some of them in the media's own flawed league tables.

Sadly, however, it is a ripple among larger waves. Hardly a week goes by without the Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, giving another lecture in which he argues that schoolteachers should not be trained in universities, or that scholarly research has no contribution to make to the improvement of education, which can safely be left to classroom common sense and Ofsted diktats.

More seriously, higher education's own watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency, shows signs of joining the witch hunt. At the QAA's Gloucester headquarters, relief, even joy, reportedly greeted David Blunkett's decision last autumn to take a tough line with Thames Valley, despite the more cautious instincts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The suspicion is palpable and pervasive. Universities are not to be trusted; they are guilty until proved innocent by incessant audit; they are accused alternately of being too academic and not academic enough.

Although the "new" universities are under immediate attack, even Oxford is in danger of being accused of dumbing down compared with its global peers, such as Harvard.

The universities cannot avoid some of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. In the past 15 years the number of students has more than doubled, to 1.7 million. Britain, like its continental European neighbours, now has a mass system of higher education and - paradoxically, in the light of the crescendo of concern - produces more graduates, because wastage is so low. A good case can be made for arguing that Britain is now the greatest academic "power" in Europe - its quality, in terms of its share of world-class research and its academic standards, is unimpaired, its quantity is equally impressive.

Britain has also abandoned class distinctions between different types of higher education. In much of the rest of Europe, universities have clung to a highly "academic" mission in which practicality is largely ignored, while "inferior" institutions have been boxed into an inflexible vocationalism. In Britain, the whole idea of a university has been refreshed, the horizons of the traditional universities are enlarged and the aspirations of the former polytechnics have been raised.

Yet none of these achievements is celebrated. Britain seems to have acquired a mass system of higher education in a fit of guilty absent-mindedness.

The greater result is a real risk of a backlash, social retreat and intellectual closure, the recurrence of that awfully English mixture of philistinism and elitism.

And the lesser result is a serious misreading of the dilemma facing universities. The danger is not that expansion has created slum universities, or that some of our universities are not "proper" ones. Rather it is that, since the promotion of the polytechnics, our universities are too much alike.

Governments must guard not against a lack of uniformity, but the risk of too much uniformity, the unintended consequence of these same national standards and convergent funding systems. The "more means worse" brigade, resurrected as the scourge of "dumbing down", is the enemy of the openness and adaptability that have become higher education's greatest virtues - and the best hope for producing a learning society.

The writer is vice-chancellor of Kingston University