Leading article: The cost of change in higher education

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The Independent Online

A study out this week will strike a chord with many academics, confirming them in their despair about changes in higher education. Based on a survey of 300 academics, it says higher education is selling its soul to the new gods of managerialism and regulation - and to the drive to get bums on seats in the lecture theatres.

Edited by Ian McNay, emeritus professor at Greenwich University, and Jennifer Bone, former pro vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, the study shows that almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of academics think that higher education has lost its role as the conscience and critic of society. This analysis complements Professor Roger Brown's critique of what has gone wrong in the universities, though the vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University has concentrated on analysing the introduction of the market rather than on how academics feel about the changes.

It should surprise no one that academic staff feel that the joy of learning has lost out to targets. The old university system was small and cosy, containing a smaller number of highly qualified and motivated undergraduates. Academics could do what they liked without prying demands from the Quality Assurance Agency in a world where the money was not lavish but used to roll in each year, no questions asked.

Today, universities are undergoing painful change. Academics are no longer free to do research - or not - as they pleased, and to take as long as they like about it. They have to produce, or they are seen as unproductive and excluded from the Research Assessment Exercise.

At the same time, the system has expanded hugely to take many more students with very little extra funding or teaching staff. Overseas students are prized because they can be charged so much more than home students. Abuses abound. It is therefore no surprise that the academics in the survey believe that standards have been dumbed down, with weaker students being admitted and pass rates lowered.

On page 6, Steve McCormack, returning to visit his Alma Mater, Liverpool University, reports that the average ability of students has declined owing to increasing student numbers and changes in the schools. We should be careful not to be too grumpy about this; it is a good thing that many more people now go to university.

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