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The wrong debate on university standards

The argument about standards in higher education is riddled with nostalgia. Instead we should be seeking to develop a university appropriate to the 21st century, argues Douglas Hague
The energy being devoted to the current debate on "standards" in universities is astonishing. It is astonishing because while no one can dispute that what universities do must be done well, the question which ought to be attracting that energy is what the 21st-century university should be doing. It is still unresolved. The present debate, generating much heat among journalists and academics alike, largely misses the point.

Any debate on the role of the contemporary university must start from three indisputable facts. First, we are moving into a knowledge age in which more people than ever will spend their lives handling information. The second is that a significant number of graduates will be working in fields which universities have traditionally seen as their own. Many of these businesses will be driven by economic logic to compete with universities. Third, an important contribution of the university today must be to provide world-class training for those who will work in knowledge businesses and will provide the tax revenues needed to keep the traditional university afloat.

The tragedy of the recent decision to allow polytechnics to become universities is that it was a move in precisely the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time. To provide adequate training for the 21st century, at least two-thirds of what are now called universities should have been pressed to turn themselves into real polytechnics, providing first-rate professional training for the knowledge society. After a lifetime in business schools, I know that high-quality professional training today lacks nothing in intellectual rigour and challenge.

This is not a philistine view. A new-style polytechnic could mix the cultural stimuli we have come to associate with the university with more utilitarian ones appropriate to a mass higher education system in the era of the knowledge society. The present debate on standards in universities is regressive and backward-looking. The ideal model is not the university of the 21st century but something more akin to Oxbridge. And the concept of education invoked is not a new-style mix of technology and culture but rather the humanities, which for the most part, are now living on borrowed time.

Today's universities face a crisis, but it is one whose shape they barely recognise. Like all crises, it has no single cause but at its heart lies hyper-specialisation, with scholars seeking growing mastery of increasingly limited fields and ignoring the old saw about knowing everything about nothing. One of the few clear benefits of the recent emphasis by the Universities Funding Council on evaluating the performance of British universities is that teaching standards have begun to rise. Even so, the broad wisdom of the polymath is too rarely found.

Hyper-specialisation flourishes because universities are too inward-looking, too impermeable. They have become isolated from society and the broader process of economic and cultural change. There is too much emphasis in both teaching and research on outdated paradigms because academic establishments rely on each other to confirm that the intellectual status quo is still valid. Scholars age as their paradigms age and innovation is discouraged. Why should they help brash young people (perhaps the Cricks and Watsons of the 1990s) to destroy paradigms so laboriously constructed?

Nothing impresses me more than the ferocity with which academic peer groups insist on the impossibility of bringing in outsiders, particularly businessmen, to evaluate research proposals. Yet there are few subjects, arguably none, in which a researcher who really cares for what he is studying cannot in a couple of pages, or a 10-minute presentation, convince a total outsider of the "worthwhileness" of his proposal. That is, if the non- academic is allowed the chance. Precisely because they feel threatened by challenges from outsiders and because challenge is undesirable now that state funding is a more precarious form of support than it was, the university of the knowledge age is more, not less, impermeable.

The whole point of academic research, of course, is that its findings should not be opaque and inaccessible, but available to those who could benefit from them - not least those outside universities. That is why I am constantly amazed, and increasingly frustrated, by the resistance of researchers to the insistence that disseminating research findings is at least as important a task as was reaching them in the first place. I wonder how many tons of research theses languish in university libraries, rarely if ever consulted, not least because of their wordiness, which has become almost compulsory, and the impenetrability of their jargon.

If the essence of research conclusions cannot be stated concisely in clear language, one has every right to question whether the research was worthwhile. Yet asking social science researchers to explain the four or five most important findings of a major research study is more likely to cause resentment than enthusiasm. And timely research remains almost a contradiction in terms.

One of the few gleams of light in the gloom surrounding universities is that more of them are concentrating on (hopefully good) teaching, with research concentrated in fewer institutions. Yet the status of research remains higher than that of teaching and the Universities Funding Council allocates money on the basis of peer-group assessment with the weight of research measured in tons rather than gravitas. National research councils still give more weight to peer-group assessments of research, for example in applied economics, than those of civil servants or businessmen who find its conclusions useful.

The key issue for universities is not whether old-fashioned standards are being maintained - many of which in any case need to be jettisoned - but how to establish the new standards which will enable the universities to make a genuine contribution to the knowledge society.

The universities need to make themselves open and porous. On that score they are failing miserably. If they cannot generate the necessary changes of their own accord, then they should collaborate with potential catalysts, namely the new knowledge businesses.

The role of such a business is to acquire, handle and transmit knowledge - precisely what universities should also be doing. Academics will sneer at such businesses because their raison d'etre is commercial. But it is precisely because the viewpoints and approaches of the two differ that alliances of talent aimed at transforming universities can offer so much.

Education is a process and processes are what businesses understand. Universities, on the other hand, have all too little grasp of the learning process. Such processes need to be assessed not only by how many students receive "good" degrees but in more qualitative terms as well. It is on such new standards of assessment, emerging from a new openness in universities and from new collaboration between universities and the brightest in business, that Britain's intellectual and commercial success in the 21st century must be won.

Sir Douglas Hague is associate fellow of Templeton College, Oxford.