Nation of students at university for life

the vision for higher education in 21st-century Britain
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The Independent Online
The archetypal image of the middle-class teenage undergraduate as the typical student must be banished for ever if Britain is to match the education levels of its competitor countries.

The report of the committee headed by Sir Ron Dearing, former chairman of the Post Office, which will be published next week is the most important examination of higher education for more than 30 years.

Sir Ron Dearing will paint an ideal vision of a 21st-century nation of perpetual students from all social backgrounds who, in effect, never leave university. After investing time, effort and more money than any previous generation of undergraduates in their degree course, students will build up a relation-ship with universities which lasts for decades, the report will say.

As the concept of the job or even career for life is relegated to history, the pace of change in the workplace will force adults to return to education to gain new knowledge and skills.

They may not return to full-time study, but are likely to use new communication technologies to learn at home or at work. Even after retirement, the report will suggest, adults should have the opportunity to continue studying to improve their quality of life.

The Dearing Committee will urge universities to increase their efforts to draw up qualifications which can be either free-standing or built up over time, and which are commonly accepted, giving students the freedom to return to study at different times and in different institutions.

The vision fits the Government's commitment to lifelong learning, to be set out in a White Paper in the autumn. The principle is likely to find few opponents, but universities and students will question whether the committee's proposals on funding match the scale of the vision.

The 1,700-page report, Higher Education and the Learning Society, will highlight dramatic global changes since the last landmark inquiry into higher education over 30 years ago.

Since the publication in 1964 of the Robbins report, which also recommended a massive expansion in higher education, advances in technology have meant that manufacturers can operate anywhere in the world.

As global competition increases, the report will say, education and training of each nation's people becomes critical.

The Dearing report will update the aims and objectives of higher education defined by the Robbins Committee. Where Robbins said one role of higher education should be instruction in skills for employment, Dearing will stress the need to equip individuals with the capacity to adapt to a constantly changing employment market.

For some students of the future, tying in higher education with career development and the needs of their job through part-time study will be preferable to the traditional three-year period at university, from 18 to 21, the report will say.

That change is already well under way, since students who enter university for the first time before the age of 21 are already in the minority in higher education. In 1995-96, 58 per cent of those entering higher education were mature students.

The long-established role of higher education in providing vocational training for professions such as law, medicine and engineering must stay, the committee will recommend.

The Dearing vision of higher education will focus more than its 1960s counterpart on the need for universities to serve the needs of the national and local economy. Institutions will need to help conquer the UK's traditional weakness in translating its high quality basic research into money-making applications which boost the economy, the report will say.

The report will also emphasise the importance of universities in increasing knowledge and understanding through research for its own sake.

Higher education has a vital role in shaping the values of a civilised society, the report will say. Universities of the future would not so much "transmit a common culture" - an aim set down for them in the Robbins report 30 years ago - but in a diverse society they still have a part to play in preserving parts of Britain's culture in danger of being subsumed by change.

Leading article, page 15