We see a higher education sector which meets the needs of the economy in terms of trained people, research and technology transfer. At the same time it needs to enable all suitably qualified individuals to develop their potential both intellectually and personally, and to provide the necessary storehouse of expertise in science and technology, and the arts and humanities which defines our civilisation and culture.
It is hardly surprising that universities in Britain are badly demoralised. Even those statements which are clearly intended to be upbeat affirmations of their importance have a way of making you feel slightly ill. It is not simply the fact that no single institution could successfully achieve all the aims crammed into this unlovely paragraph, taken from the introductory chapter to the Government’s White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, published earlier this year. It is also the thought of that room in Whitehall where these collages are assembled. As the findings from the latest survey of focus groups come in, an official cuts out all those things which earned a positive rating and glues them together in a straight line. When a respectable number of terms have been accumulated in this way, s/he puts a dot at the end and calls it a sentence.
There are two sentences in that paragraph. The first, which is clear enough though not a thing of beauty, says that the main aim of universities is to turn out people and ideas capable of making money. The second, which is neither clear nor beautiful, says there are a lot of other points that it’s traditional to mention in this connection, and that they’re all good things too, in their way, and that the official with the glue-pot has been having a busy day, and that we’ve lost track of the subject of the verb in the last line, and that it may be time for another full stop.
It’s true that it isn’t easy to characterise what universities are and what they now do, and so not easy to lay down a ‘vision’ of what they might do in the future. That is partly because of the intrinsic difficulty of talking about intellectual activity in terms that are both general and useful, partly because the ‘higher education sector’ embraces a diverse range of institutions each of which is something of a palimpsest of successive social and educational ideals; but above all it is because the populist language that dominates so much discussion in contemporary market democracies ” is not well adapted to justifying public expenditure in other than economic or utilitarian terms, and it is principally as a form of expenditure – a problematic or resented one – that universities now attract political and media attention.
The result is that even, or perhaps especially, within universities, opinion tends to congregate around two almost equally unappealing extremes. On the one hand, there is the mournful idiom of cultural declinism: ‘standards’ are falling, ‘philistinism’ is rampant, ‘autonomy’ has been lost, and even the barbarians are going to the dogs. And on the other, there is the upbeat idiom of brave new worldism: ‘challenges’ and ‘opportunities’ abound, ‘partnerships with industry’ beckon, ‘accountability’ rules, and we’re all ‘investing in the future’ like billy-oh. As with larger questions of social and cultural change, it can be difficult to escape the magnetic pull of these extremes, difficult to get the measure of the changes that have been taking place without either falling into the absurdity of suggesting that everything would be all right if we could just go back to universities as they were c.1953, or the equal absurdity of proposing that more ruthless cost-cutting and more aggressive marketing could soon have HiEdbizUK plc showing healthy profits for shareholders.
Attempts have been made, principally among those more sympathetic to the first of these extremes, to arrive at a defining statement of the ‘idea’ of the university, an up-to-date version of Newman’s. But for all their many merits, such ventures are bound to fail in the sense that ‘higher education’ currently embraces such a diversity of types of institution fulfilling such a variety of functions that they cannot be gathered under the umbrella of a single ‘idea’, even if one believed in the general value of searching for such Coleridgean essences. Hardly surprisingly, no deathless prose has been written on ‘The Idea of the Tertiary Education Sector’. The truth is that the different justifications currently offered for universities, even those ineptly soldered together in that paragraph from the White Paper, are residues from earlier stages of social and educational development. Over and over again, as Sheldon Rothblatt, one of the foremost historians of British universities, pointed out some years ago, we meet attempts to define an ideal of university education ‘by joining principles and values that at bottom have different historical origins and acutely different cultural meanings and purposes’.
This is certainly the case with the numerous ahistorical pronouncements one currently encounters about what defines a ‘real’ university or about what a ‘proper’ university education ought to be. On closer inspection, these pre-emptive definitions usually turn out to rest on a few selectively recalled details about the way certain British universities functioned in the 1950s and 1960s, abstracted from the conditions which sustained them. Similarly, in current discussions about university funding, and especially about student support, it is often assumed that the system now undergoing such radical overhaul has been in place time out of mind. In fact, it was only at some point in the decade after 1945 that the state started to provide even half of the income of any British university, and it was only after the report of the Anderson Committee in 1960 that a national system of mandatory grants for students was put in place. It is also worth remembering that when the Thatcher Governments’ Kulturkampf against universities began in 1981, nearly half of Britain’s 46 degree-granting institutions had not been in existence as universities two decades earlier. From one point of view, the 1980s and 1990s look like the decades during which successive governments attempted to reduce the historic standing of universities and dismantle their traditional funding structure; but, taking another historical perspective, it is the 1960s and 1970s that appear exceptional, the first and last decades in which Britain tried to sustain a substantial but still rigorously selective, wholly state-funded system of high-quality, undergraduate-centred universities.
It is tempting, partly in order to tease the hapless Charles Clarke, to suggest that no sensible thinking about universities can be done without going back to their medieval origins, but for present purposes the quick tour of the historical horizon need not begin any further back than the second half of the 19th century, the palaeolithic age of so many British cultural institutions. It was in the mid and late Victorian period that two developments took place that were to determine university development in Britain for almost a hundred years. First, the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, which had long functioned as a cross between finishing schools for the sons of the landed classes and seminaries for the Anglican Church, were reformed. The public-school ideal of character formation took hold; ‘modern’ subjects, such as history, languages and science, were introduced; a new self-consciousness developed about educating the governing and administrative class of the future; and the sense of the universities’ place in the national culture grew. Second, in the 1870s and 1880s new universities were established in the great cities which had grown up as a result of industrialisation, such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. Initially, these colleges were the result of local initiatives and aimed at meeting local needs: they were not afraid to teach practical subjects such as ‘commerce’ alongside the traditional curriculum; many of their students lived at home. A different ‘idea’ of the university was required to take account of them.
Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century there were already at least three different kinds of institution among British universities, even leaving aside the various medical schools, teacher-training colleges, and numerous ecclesiastical, voluntary and professional institutions. There was the Oxbridge model: residential, tutorial, character-forming. There was the Scottish/ London model: metropolitan, professorial, meritocratic. And there was the ‘civic’ model (‘redbrick’ was a later 20th-century coinage): local, practical, aspirational.
At this point the state played hardly any direct role in financing universities; they were autonomous foundations with their own endowments, or the result of local initiative and funding, or dependent on students’ fees – or, usually, some combination of these. Only in 1919 was a body established to distribute the small grant-in-aid which governments had begun to make to some institutions; called the University Grants Committee, this was essentially a device for protecting the autonomy of universities by allowing a small group, mostly made up of senior academics, to act as an intermediary body to advise the government on the needs of universities and then to distribute such sums as the Treasury should allocate for the purpose. In the 1930s the annual recurrent grant was around £2 million; postwar expansion, especially from the late 1950s onwards, saw this rise to £61 million by 1962. As late as 1956 the total allocated to universities via the UGC for capital projects (as opposed to recurrent expenditure) was only £3.8 million; by 1963 this had shot up to £30 million.
Although different national systems of higher education have their own distinctive characteristics, scholarship and science are inherently international enterprises and so no one system can be understood wholly in isolation from the others. For most of the 19th century, the German universities were the pace-setters; they were hugely influential in the United States, both intellectually and organisationally, and they constituted a source of rivalrous curiosity in France, especially after the defeat of 1871, but they had considerable impact in Britain, too, not least in standing for an ideal of wissenschaftlich ‘research’ which came to be grafted onto the native traditions of teaching and scholarship. In the first two-thirds of the 20th century, British universities provided a model frequently emulated elsewhere in the world, partly just for imperial reasons, partly on account of their perceived success in combining social and intellectual activity. But it is clear that for some time now the real powerhouses have been in the US, especially the great centres of postgraduate and advanced scientific research, and many of the proposals (and some of the policies) of recent years have been aimed at trying to make British universities more closely resemble their American counterparts, or at least some imagined version of them.
But from the early years of the 20th century a dialectic was at work in Britain which was to be become one of the dominant forces in the development of higher education, a dialectic that was in some measure powered by snobbery: the newer and different types of institution increasingly shed their distinctiveness and more and more conformed to the culturally dominant model. Thus the civic universities progressively lost their local and practical character: they built more and more residences for students from other parts of the country; the traditional hierarchy of subjects reasserted itself; playing fields came to be regarded as essential to a university education, a historically curious association that still looks quaintly Anglo-Saxon when viewed from Berlin or Paris. And this is a pattern which has since been repeated with other relative newcomers such as, in the 1940s and 1950s, the former local colleges that granted external London degrees, or in the 1960s and 1970s with the Colleges of Advanced Technology, or again in the 1980s and 1990s with the polytechnics. The pull has always been towards being a national rather than a local institution; towards offering a full spectrum of subjects; towards offering postgraduate as well as undergraduate degrees; towards supporting research as well as teaching; and towards having the autonomy and prestige traditionally associated with (though in recent years fast being lost by) the older universities.
Even so, universities expanded slowly in the first few decades of the 20th century; on the eve of the Second World War, fewer than 2 per cent of the population passed through them; and many of the recently founded civic institutions were very small and somewhat fragile. Since 1945, however, change has been increasingly dramatic. Three main forces have been at work, and not just in Britain, though the process has taken a distinctive form here. The first is the explosion in student numbers; the second is the vast expansion of scientific research; and the third is political ideology.
The statistics showing the growth in numbers are eloquent enough. In 1939 there were about 50,000 students at the 21 universities in Britain (all such figures are disputable; even now matters of definition dog the attempt to produce agreed statistics). Postwar expansion saw this figure more than double to 113,000 by 1961. Thereafter, the rate of expansion accelerated sharply. Many people, including those who hold forth about universities, still think that the new ‘plate-glass’ universities of the 1960s were set up as the outcome of the Robbins Report, but simple chronology indicates how far from the truth this is. It was in the late 1950s that the UGC took the decision to found what became the seven ‘new’ universities, and the first of them, Sussex, opened its doors in 1961 – the Robbins Committee didn’t report until 1963. Two years later, Anthony Crosland, then Secretary of State for Education, enunciated what became known as the ‘binary principle’, according to which two different but parallel types of higher education were to be developed, the traditional kind in universities and a more vocationally oriented, community-responsive kind in the polytechnics. By 1980 there were around 300,000 students in some 44 universities, with ever higher targets being set for each year’s intake, but the reclassification of the former polytechnics as universities in 1992 almost doubled the number of those classed as ‘university students’, and since then relentless financial pressure to take more students has driven the total up to around 1,750,000 studying at (depending, as always, on one’s classification) some 115 universities. These totals mask particularly striking increases in the numbers of postgraduate students and those studying part-time at whatever level; in the last three decades the number of postgraduates has gone from around 60,000 to almost 380,000, while part-time students, rare at university level in the past, now account for over 600,000 of the total. (They also mask the gigantic educational enfranchisement of women in the course of the last fifty years: female students are now slightly in the majority.) Almost inevitably, staff-student ratios and unit costs per student have plunged dramatically.
During the same period, universities have been transformed to the point where they are now principally centres of scientific and technological research and, increasingly, of vocational and professional training. In the 1930s, half the students at British universities were in the arts faculties; more strikingly still, at Oxford and Cambridge the proportion studying in arts faculties was 80 and 70 per cent respectively. Now, those studying pure ‘humanities’ subjects (classification problems again) account only for some 18 per cent of undergraduates and 12 per cent of postgraduates in British universities. But the really significant change concerns expenditure, especially expenditure on research rather than teaching: the huge growth in the costs of ‘big science’ and the extraordinary expansion of the scope of the biological sciences mean that the science budget has soared into the billions, dwarfing the amounts spent on the humanities and social sciences. Inevitably, funding systems will be designed to fit the activities involving the most money. Public funding of higher education is hugely concentrated on supporting science, medicine and technology, and these departments account for an overwhelmingly large proportion of any individual university’s operating budget. It is hardly surprising that so many of the characteristics of the funding system under which universities operate, from the reliance on winning large grants from commercial and charitable sponsors to the categories of the Research Assessment Exercises, should reflect the economic clout of the sciences.
These first two changes have been cumulative, only partly deliberate, and often barely noticed as they were taking place. But the impact of political ideology, especially when seen from within universities, has been dramatic, programmatic and controversial. Until the late 1970s, universities expanded on the back of what might be called the welfare-state model of cultural diffusion. As with the arts, traditional forms of cultural good were to be extended to more and more people by means of state support. ‘Culture’ was seen as an antidote to or refuge from the grubby pressures of economic life, and universities were expected to be beacons of culture. This model had its paternalist side – the mandarins knew what was worth having more of whether people clamoured for it or not – and also its hidden subsidies to the middle class, who were overwhelmingly the chief recipients of the cultural goods that were partly paid for by the large proportion of the population which did not directly benefit from them. But it also had deep roots in British social attitudes, and although the shocks sustained by the British economy in the late 1960s and 1970s entailed various forms of retrenchment in university funding, they left the assumptions governing this model more or less intact.
Thereafter, four dates marked successive stages of a calculated assault by Tory Governments on institutions which they perceived as expensive, self-absorbed, arrogant and liberal. In 1981 university funding was savagely reduced in a move that appeared almost deliberately to undermine rational planning and damage morale. Across the whole system, the reduction was of the order of 11 per cent, in some places it was much higher: several universities, including one or two of the most highly regarded, suffered sudden funding cuts of around 20 per cent, and the University of Salford (one of the former Colleges of Advanced Technology so smiled on in the Harold Wilson/C.P. Snow years) found its budget cut by over 40 per cent. The second key date was 1986, which saw the first Research Assessment Exercise, the brainchild of “Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, then chairman of the UGC. An attempt to measure the quality of the research carried on in different departments in order to determine the amount of the ‘research’ element in the block grant going to a given university, the RAE marked the beginning of the all-devouring audit culture that has since so signally contributed to making universities less efficient places in which to think and teach. The third date was 1988, the year of the ‘Great Education Act’ which, among other things, changed the legal status of academic tenure and abolished the UGC, putting in its place funding bodies empowered to give direct effect to successive government policies largely by making funds dependent on carrying out various reforms or meeting specific targets. And the fourth was 1992, when legislation was enacted to allow the former polytechnics to become universities, thereby pretty much doubling their number overnight and further depriving them of any status accruing from exclusivity or historic association. By and large, universities offered remarkably little resistance to these changes, bending the knee whenever their funding masters passed by.
Since then, the political pressures have been unrelenting. In recent years, the total sum spent by the Government on universities has increased somewhat, although it’s usually for strictly earmarked purposes and tied to continuing ‘reform’, but the direction of change has remained constant. The two most frequently reiterated goals of official policy are, first, to make universities more responsive to the needs of the economy and more like commercial companies in governance (although in the business world the wisdom of top-down, chief executive models has increasingly been questioned); and second, to expand numbers and achieve a ‘truly democratic inclusiveness’. So in the long march that has seen universities function as seminaries, finishing schools, government staff colleges, depositories of culture, nurseries of citizenship and centres of scientific research, the next step appears to be to turn them into limited companies.
Given these developments, it is no good just saying that universities are autonomous bodies and what goes on inside them is no business of the state’s. That idea would have seemed pretty odd at most times and places in the history of universities, whether in Renaissance England or 18th-century Germany or, for that matter, contemporary France. It is true that Britain has a long tradition of leaving various functions to be performed by independent, local and voluntary bodies, which then become suspicious of or resistant to state ‘intervention’. But even the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, prime examples of this style of legally autonomous corporation, were investigated and eventually reformed by successive royal commissions in the middle and late 19th century; they were forced to make proper use of endowments and to direct the education they offered towards what were seen at the time as national needs (particularly for the training of an administrative class). And wherever the state has become the piper, tunes have been called. The UGC was a cunning device which deferred the full consequences of this logic until the later decades of the 20th century, but it has long been apparent that universities cannot have it both ways: if they want generous financial support from the government of the day, then they have to accept becoming answerable to that government and its conception of what the electorate will bear.
But universities are a problem for governments, and they are an especial problem for populist governments in market democracies. The only two forms of justification that such governments can assume will be accepted by their electorates are, first, the benefits of ‘research’, especially the medical, technological and economic benefits; and, second, manpower planning, the training of future employees in a particular economy. A third function, the preservation, cultivation and transmission of a cultural tradition, cuts some ice if it is understood to be confined to a small number of outstanding institutions, somewhat analogous to the case for national galleries and museums. A fourth justification, one that has had considerable purchase in the United States and, in a different idiom, in France, concerns socialisation in civic values, but has never played very well in Britain, where the implicit nature of the political and social ideals allegedly governing our lives have not, to most people, seemed to need explicit formulation and inculcation. That complacent view has been considerably shaken in recent years, and official recognition of the needs of an increasingly heterogeneous population suggests this justification will become more and more prominent in the future.
These various justifications can of course actively contradict each other. From the 19th century onwards, the research ideal has obviously been at odds with that of character formation: the narrowness of focus required by the former precludes the breadth and diversity conducive to the latter. Similarly, the currently fashionable emphasis on enabling people to develop their potential is at odds with the no less fashionable emphasis on fostering economic competitiveness: what if the potential that people find they have to develop is to become unsaleably esoteric poets? It is still common to hear it said, especially by those who see themselves as resisting most of the changes that have taken place in British universities in the past couple of decades, that the animating idea of a university is the unfettered pursuit of truth. This may be a better one-phrase credo than many, but it doesn’t seem to encompass the professional training and validation of nurses, surveyors, civil engineers and so on, let alone the eager exploitation of ‘technology transfer’.
Throughout their long history, universities have been selective institutions: at different times selective by religious, vocational or political criteria, nearly always selective in terms of social class, and in the course of the 20th century increasingly selective by intellectual aptitude. The surface egalitarianism of market democracies is uneasy with claims about the differential capacities of individuals and still more with ideas about intrinsic differences of worth between activities. The ideology of consumer choice is that all wants are in principle equal: the only acceptable indication of value is consumer demand. Anything else smacks of ‘elitism’, the paternalist attempt by some to dictate to others what they ought to want. The idea that some things are intrinsically more valuable than others and can be seriously cultivated only by those with the relevant aptitudes raises hackles.
That is particularly the case when there is suspicion that the selection in question has been influenced by traditional forms of privilege. Consider, by contrast, the nearly complete absence of anxieties about elitism where the upper rungs of major sports are concerned. There is widespread acceptance of the principle of utterly ruthless selection by ability, both at the level of sports academies and youth squads, and of top teams competing internationally, as well as acceptance that those who succeed at these levels should have the best facilities and back-up that money can buy, including, in some cases, taxpayers’ money. One obvious precondition for this public support is the perception that neither social class nor, increasingly, ethnic origin constitutes any kind of barrier to success in these sports. When there have remained misgivings on this score, as with cricket until very recently and perhaps still with rugby union, charges of elitism quickly come into play. It is also essential that the sports should have wide popular appeal and be at least in part financed by a paying public, who in turn expect high standards of performance. Individuals from ordinary backgrounds who excel at activities for which there is widespread popular enthusiasm are not automatically suspected of being ‘superior’. Universities do not enjoy these advantages.
So, the fundamental conundrum facing those attempting to justify public support for universities is this: much of what goes on in them is likely to be regarded as both useless and elitist: that is to say, hard to justify in terms either of its direct contribution to economic prosperity or of its direct contribution to ‘social inclusiveness’. But rather than curry favour by pretending that these are in fact the chief purposes of universities, their defenders might do better to acknowledge the non-utilitarian nature of much intellectual enquiry while at the same time drawing attention to the common fallacies and misconceived categories that hamper discussion of the issue. As a start, one might want to insist, first, that intellectual activity can, for the most part, be judged but not measured; second, that although a number of ‘skills’ may be a by-product of a university education, they are not its defining purpose; and third, universities only bear superficial and largely misleading resemblances to commercial companies. If such measures of mental hygiene were combined with a basic grasp of the history and diversity of higher education provision in this country, they would provide a better starting-point for discussion than the present mélange of media stereotypes, commercial analogies and political tendentiousness.
Certainly, this may be a particularly important moment to try. Parliament is about to debate the proposals set out in the White Paper, and it is already obvious that the legislation that ensues will have far-reaching consequences. Which is why the muddled thinking and slack, prefabricated prose of this document are both depressing and alarming. One must, of course, be realistic about the genre to which The Future of Higher Education belongs. It is a functional document, doubtless the work of many hands; it is not a philosophical meditation on its subject nor does it aim at literary distinction. Nonetheless, some White Papers have in the past constituted major statements about an area of our common life, and one would at least expect the phrasing of such an important document to reflect the fact that it has been worked on intensively by some of the best minds among politicians, civil servants, policy advisers and so on. The alarming thought is that it may indeed reflect that process. In this respect, the whole bullet-point-riddled assemblage is an index of the difficulty which the public language of a contemporary market democracy has with social goods that can neither be quantified nor satisfactorily distributed by means of a market mechanism.
It’s hard to know where to start. The issue on which the Government has its knickers most completely in a twist is ‘access’, and, not surprisingly, there is a whole chapter in the White Paper devoted to ‘fair access’. Every year a large part of the media coverage of universities concerns this issue, too, with stories about a pupil from a working-class background who is rejected by snobby Oxbridge despite getting outstanding A-levels. The general implication of these stories is that, in an otherwise fair and open society, elitist universities continue to favour the offspring of the traditionally privileged.
To restore a little sanity to this issue, let’s begin with the following, rather striking fact. In Britain, entrance to a university is almost the only widely desired social good that cannot be straightforwardly bought. Money can buy you a better house than other people; money can buy you better health care; money can even buy you a better school education for your children. Our society apparently feels no shame about any of this: advertisements in the national media spell out in the starkest terms the advantages your child will get, including improved exam results, if you can afford the high school fees. But money cannot directly buy a better university place for your child, or indeed a place at all (apart from at the private University of Buckingham, whose recruitment pattern confirms that it has not become the institution of choice for most British students). Of course, as in any strongly class-divided society, advantages are self-perpetuating: statistically, children of the wealthy stand a much better chance of going to university than do children of the poor (children of the well-educated stand a better chance still). But the facts are the very reverse of the picture painted by silly-season newspaper headlines: money can buy you pretty much everything except love and university entrance.
The question of access therefore needs to start from somewhere else. It is absurd to think that universities can unilaterally correct for the effects of a class-divided society. Of course the figures showing how much greater are the chances of children of the professional classes going to university than children of manual workers reveal a scandalous situation. But the scandal is not about university admissions: it is about the effect of social class in determining life-chances; the corresponding figures about, say, mortality are a much worse scandal.
As with so many other matters in contemporary public debate, serious thinking about class has been displaced by shallow sloganeering about elitism. Anything which smacks of favouring what were the contingent accoutrements of the dominant class in an earlier period is ‘outmoded’, ‘archaic’, ‘elitist’ (the stories are usually accompanied by Bridesheady images of supposed Oxbridge types in dinner jackets and punts). The outrage is that a working-class girl from, say, Essex or Tyneside is being ‘dissed’. Clubby upper-class men are cloning themselves, admitting chaps who ‘fit in’, and so on. It goes without saying that the judgments of university admissions tutors are fallible, but as an account of systematic bias currently at work in the process this fantasy doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Have the journalists who write these stories ever met any admissions tutors or considered their often far from privileged social backgrounds – or even noticed the fact that a lot of them are not male? And what would be the academics’ motives for selecting less able Hooray Henrys to teach for the next three years? For the most part university teachers have a much more informed interest in the intellectual ‘potential’ of those whom they are to teach than do the mouthy hordes of journalists and politicians over-quick to scent scandal. The majority of these stories are in any case based on the misleading premise that very good A-level results will guarantee applicants entry to the university of their choice, when in fact top universities could often fill their places many times over with applicants who have such results, so that other factors, including judgments about intellectual autonomy and suitability for the course, legitimately come into play. The willingness of leading members of the Government to sound off about the shameful elitism they insist must have informed these judgments only shows how quick they are to attack what they think will be soft targets with populist appeal. This is the other face of ‘modernisation’: we need to sweep away ‘privilege’ in the form of the trappings of status, but we allow the market to entrench the real differentials of class more deeply than ever.
In these circumstances it would take an exceptionally clear-headed and brave official document on higher education not to succumb to making cheap shots about access, and it will already be clear how far the White Paper is from displaying those qualities. Some of what it says about ‘opportunity’ and ‘potential’ and so on is unexceptionable enough, and to its credit it acknowledges that the story starts much further back, with family background and early schooling. But it never seems to grasp the full significance of this acknowledgment, nor to understand how, in consequence, participation rates for different social groups are only marginally affected by variations in universities’ admissions practices. This obtuseness is particularly evident when the White Paper observes, almost in passing: ‘It is worth noting that students from lower socio-economic groups who do achieve good A-levels are as likely to go on to university as young people from better-off backgrounds.’ The sentence isn’t sufficiently precise in its phrasing to do the work that it promises – do the young people from better-off backgrounds have the same results, do they go to the same universities? – but it surely makes clear enough that the problem is not to do with university admissions in themselves. Nonetheless, the White Paper pushes on in the only way it knows how: by setting ‘benchmarks’ for each institution to achieve in recruiting from ‘low participation groups’, and then setting ‘improvement targets for year-on-year progress’. And what if admissions officers find that not enough schoolchildren with ‘potential’ apply from the right postcodes (or whatever other rough marker of ‘disadvantage’ is used)? Tough: they’ll fail to meet their ‘targets’, and their institutions’ funding will suffer accordingly. It seems possible that the early stages of consultation have led the Government to drop or modify the idea of an Access Regulator who would check that individual universities were meeting their access ‘contract’, and would deny them the right to charge higher fees if they weren’t. But the fundamental confusion remains.
A still deeper confusion is at work in the off-the-cuff manpower planning that informs this document. Its premise, as we have seen, is that higher education needs ‘to enable all suitably qualified individuals to develop their potential’. But how many people is this, and how can we know? You may well think it is impossible to answer that question, and you’d be right. But the Government knows. Or at least it appears to know, that by 2010, 50 per cent of the age cohort in this country will have the potential to develop themselves intellectually and personally in higher education. The absurdity of this marriage of high principle and random guesswork becomes more glaring a few pages later when we are told in successive bullet points that
our vision is of a sector which:
• offers the opportunity of higher education to all those who have the potential to benefit.
• is expanding towards 50 per cent participation for young people aged 18-30 years from all backgrounds.
The obvious fact is that ‘50 per cent in higher education’ was an opportunist soundbite, a figure chosen for its electoral appeal, not as the expression of a deep analysis of the population’s intellectual potential, still less of an understanding of the nature of university education. Most of that expansion, entirely reasonably, will not take place in traditional university courses anyway. Much of it will be in directly vocational and employment-directed forms of training, and some may happen within a proposed two-year foundation degree. These are good and necessary things for the state to help to provide, but there is no rational way to determine how many people, short of the entire population, should benefit from them.
A similar incoherence is evident in the chapter ominously entitled ‘Teaching and Learning – Delivering Excellence’, which speaks of ‘all’ students having the right to choose the ‘best’ places. ‘All students are entitled to high quality teaching’ and to the information that will enable them to choose where to study. Publishing information about teaching quality will, through the operation of consumer choice, ‘drive up quality’. Students need this information in order, as the White Paper puts it, ‘to become intelligent customers of an increasingly diverse provision’. But if teaching in some places is better than in others, then, logically, not ‘all’ students can have access to it. Ah, but ‘student choice will increasingly work to drive up quality,’ so before long everywhere will be ‘best’. Standards will be ‘high and continually improved’. What do they think they mean by ‘continually improved’? This is advertisers’ pap: teaching isn’t soap powder. What kind of ‘right’ to choose the best place is being exercised when everywhere is, in this performance-indicator sense, ‘best’? And should we all simply acquiesce in the blithe assumption about consumer choice ‘driving up standards’ – as it has done in the case of, say, TV programmes or the railways?
Ironically, the White Paper itself illustrates the logical problem here in its comments on ‘measuring student achievement’: it worries about the ‘increasing numbers of first and upper-second class degrees’ and wants to look at alternative methods of measuring student achievement. But this is exactly the problem inherent in all attempts to combine measurement (rather than judgment) with targets, benchmarks, league tables and all the other paraphernalia of market simulation. You devise some system which supposedly measures achievement in quantitative terms and you allocate rewards on the basis of these scores; you decree that more of the players (universities, schools, individuals) have to exceed a certain score; then when they inevitably do so, you cry that the currency has been debased and you have to start again from somewhere else.
The prize for bare-faced inanity goes, predictably, to the White Paper’s comment on the Research Assessment Exercise which has been carried out every five years since its introduction in 1986. It proclaims that ‘the RAE . . . has undoubtedly led to an overall increase in quality over the last 15 years.’ Rarely can the Fallacy of the Self-Fulfilling Measurement System have been better illustrated. More departments receive higher ratings now than in 1986: ergo, quality has gone up. This corresponds to the period assessed by RAEs: ergo, it is the existence of the RAEs that have ‘led to’ this ‘increase in quality’. In reality, it is hard to see how anyone could know whether there had been some general ‘increase in quality’ in the research and scholarship carried on across all subjects in all British universities during this period. What can be said is that the RAE is a crude form of measurement that is used to distribute funds to universities: its indisputable effect has been to encourage academics to publish more, and more quickly. It is not obvious, let alone indisputable, that this has been conducive to any ‘increase in quality’.
There are moments, it has to be said, when one starts to wonder whether the officials at the Department for Education and Skills aren’t indulging in their own little joke. For example, as part of the policy of encouraging excellence in teaching (can there be a policy that doesn’t do this?), a few university departments will be designated Centres of Teaching Excellence and given all kinds of goodies. But then (don’t laugh), in order to recognise those departments that come close, but not quite close enough, to this standard, the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) ‘will also offer a “commended” status’. This will ‘make it clear to prospective students that they can expect a particularly high standard of teaching on their courses’. We have now entered the world of hotel and restaurant guides: some departments will have signs next to the entrance saying ‘HEFCE-commended’, while prospective students will decide whether they will be content with ‘plain regional teaching’ (one mortarboard), or would prefer ‘high-quality teaching in its category’ (two mortarboards), or perhaps even stretch to ‘exceptional teaching of international quality’ (three mortarboards). Suicides among heads of departments who are stripped of one of the coveted mortarboards cannot be ruled out.
One of the most predictable places where pseudo-market guff comes in is the issue of ‘rewards’ for academics (as if they had just found lost treasure or an escaped criminal). HEFCE has already been on to this, we are told, with its insistence that certain elements of the annual grant are tied to institutions having in place ‘human resources strategies’ which, above all, ‘reward good performance’: ‘This process has successfully kick-started the modernisation of human resource management in higher education.’ ‘Modernisation’ is, of course, trademark NewLabourSpeak, here combined with the language of the personnel departments of commercial companies. What it essentially means is that, given a number of people doing roughly the same job, a way has to be found to pay some of them less than others. Otherwise, given the assumptions of market democracy, no one will have sufficient reason to try to do their best: they will only do this if they can see that it could earn them more money than their colleagues. ‘Modern’ here means using the market model. Result: endless procedures involving specious attempts to measure effort or effectiveness which have the net effect of being divisive and demoralising. On this point it is worth recalling the moral confidence of the Robbins Report: ‘We believe any such disparity between the incomes and prospects of persons doing similar work in different universities, which are all in receipt of public funds, to be unjust; and we consider its effects to be harmful.’
How remote that seems from the idiom of management consultancy in which these matters are discussed now. ‘Comparing US and UK academic salaries, it is striking that the difference in average salary scales is far smaller than the difference in salaries at the top end for the best researchers. This raises questions about whether our institutions are using salaries to the best possible effect in recruiting and retaining excellent researchers.’ Does it? Or does it suggest that Fat Cat Syndrome is not yet as out of hand in British as in American universities? It is another of the misplaced market assumptions of our time that giving a lot of money to a few individuals at the top of an institution is what best contributes to the overall performance of that institution. In fact, in many activities morale, commitment, co-operation, and a sense of solidarity are far more precious, and they tend to be fostered by a system that uses only modestly differentiated pay scales.
More generally, the language of the White Paper repeatedly reveals that the only terms in which the Government believes the electorate can be conned into supporting universities are those of economic gain. The madness that follows from this is most starkly evident in, yet again, the discussion of ‘participation rates’. It is worth observing that, as historians of education have constantly demonstrated, all measures of participation in higher education are controversial and depend on contested definitions; hence the pitfalls in drawing conclusions from what may not be properly comparable data. For example, according to OECD figures, Poland has a 62 per cent net entry rate for first degree or equivalent education, whereas Germany has only 30 per cent, which doubtless accounts for the fabled superiority in economic performance of Poland over Germany . . . But let’s accept for the moment that in Britain the rate has gone up from something like 6-8 per cent of the age cohort at the beginning of the 1960s to something like 43-44 per cent today. The White Paper is keen to disarm possible criticisms of this trend, and goes on: ‘Despite the rise in the numbers participating in higher education, the average salary premium has not declined over time and remains the highest in the OECD. It is not the case that “more means worse.”’ So that’s what Kingsley Amis and the Black Paper critics were really on about: letting in the hoi polloi might endanger earnings differentials. The crassness of the thinking here hardly needs comment: it’s all right for you to be allowed to go to university – as long as it still leads to your earning more than certain other people.
But notice, too, the picture of society that is implied in this unlovely argument. When only 6 per cent of the age cohort went to universities, they went on to earn on average (let’s say) twice what the members of the remaining 94 per cent earned. Now 43 per cent of the age cohort go to university and each of them also earns twice what members of the remaining 57 per cent do. What this actually points to is a marked, though still limited, diffusion of prosperity and a radically changing social and occupational structure. Thus, it is entirely possible, given the social and economic changes of the past fifty years, that the same 43 per cent would be earning twice as much as their less fortunate brethren even if universities didn’t exist. Still, there is a glimpse here of one possible criterion the Government may be working with to decide at what level to cap ‘participation’ in higher education: there have to be enough people outside to look down on in order to make the whole business of becoming a graduate worth while.
The question of whether these higher salaries are actually the result of their recipients having had a university education also exposes the fatuity of the rhetoric of ‘potential’ and ‘fairness’. Let us, first of all, attend honestly to the facts of who gets a higher education. Overwhelmingly, it is the children of the professional and middle classes, who come from homes which give them cultural and linguistic advantages from an early age, which help them to succeed at school, which develop their educational and career aspirations, and so on. In formal terms, those who go to universities are on the whole those who, largely for these kinds of reason, get the best results in the school-leaving examination system. Now let’s suppose there were no such institutions as universities, and everybody went straight into work at the age of 18 or 19. Who would be likely to be earning, on average, salaries twice those of their contemporaries? Exactly the same people as do so now. Charging universities with elitism because they are largely powerless to dent this structure of systematic injustice is a particularly telling indication of the extent to which the Government has come to endorse a version of the familiar American combination of market individualism plus the rhetoric of ‘equal respect’ plus the fail-safe of litigation.
In other ways, too, the world as imagined by this White Paper is a world of educational Darwinism. Higher education in this country is locked in mortal combat with its ‘competitors’ elsewhere; only the ‘strongest’ departments deserve proper research funding; universities ‘compete’ for the ‘best researchers’; institutions which fail to ‘price’ their courses appropriately for their ‘market’ will be eliminated, and so on. The document urges us to wise up to these realities: ‘Our competitors are looking to sell higher education overseas, into the markets we have traditionally seen as ours.’ This may indeed reflect the practice of some universities, but may there not be a distinction between ‘attracting good students from overseas’ and ‘selling higher education’ in those ‘markets’? And might that distinction not rest on the difference between deepening international links in a common transnational intellectual enquiry, on the one hand, and making a profit, on the other?
Indeed, in what relevant sense are other countries ‘our competitors’ where intellectual activities are concerned? This bit of market language has become so pervasive that we hardly notice it any more. What chiefly lies behind it is an assumption about who reaps the economic benefits of applied science. But it is not clear that this is a zero-sum game: the benefits brought by the widespread use of any particular form of technology across a wide range of societies far outweigh any notional benefit to the country in which a certain stage or application of the relevant science was first developed. And anyway, applied technology is not the whole or even the greater part of what universities do – at least, not yet. There may be rivalry between different national groups of scholars as between individuals, but not in any meaningful sense competition. British archaeologists are enriched not impoverished if one of their colleagues from another country unearths a key bit of the jigsaw of an ancient civilisation.
But then scholarship of this kind, scholarship in the humanities that may be undertaken by individuals but which relies on and contributes to cumulative intellectual enquiry which transcends boundaries between nations as well as between generations and which has no direct economic utility, scarcely figures in the White Paper, so preoccupied is it with science seen as a source of technological applications. About a third of the way into the chapter on ‘Research Excellence – Building on Our Strengths’ there is one numbered paragraph that consists only of a single, short, breathtaking sentence. In its entirety it reads: ‘2.10: Some of these points are equally valid for the arts and humanities as for science and technology.’
In political terms, the two hottest potatoes among the Government’s proposals concern fees and their payment by students. The plan is, first, to allow universities to choose whether or not to introduce ‘top-up fees’, up to a limit presently set at £3000, over and above the existing system-wide fees. The assumption seems to be that the leading universities, confident that they would still attract the best students, would choose to charge the additional fees, while less well-placed institutions might opt to ‘compete on price’ by not doing so. The second element in the proposal is then to ‘charge’ these fees to the students concerned, though not as up-front payments but as a form of tax levied on their subsequent earnings. These two proposals are presented as part of a single package, but they could be decoupled. Requiring students to contribute individually to the cost of their university education does not entail the divisive and inadequate notion of ‘top-up fees’: it could perfectly well be combined with the abolition of ‘fees’, which are anyway a partly symbolic notation for a contract that is made directly between universities and the Government, replacing them with a simple increase in direct funding. Under the proposed Graduate Contribution Scheme, which is clearly preferable to the present regime of up-front fees, the state would in time recoup much of this outlay without introducing a financially distorted ‘market’ among universities and courses.
According to the proposed scheme, once graduates start to earn beyond a certain limit (£15,000 is suggested for the first year of the scheme), a small amount is deducted from their earnings through the tax system up to a point where they are considered to have ‘repaid’ a contribution to the costs of the education that they were publicly subsidised to undertake at the time. But the justification given for this measure runs together two different principles: that of students paying ‘the cost of the course’, and that of students paying in some proportion to their later earnings. Although in certain cases (e.g. medicine) these might point in the same direction, they certainly will not do so in general, and it ought to be clear that the second is a more acceptable basis than the first. Students should not have to pay individually for education: that is a public good whose costs one generation of the community defrays for the next. But insofar as prospective higher earnings are either a motive to undertake higher education or a consequence of it, then there is an argument for saying that students should contribute in proportion to the benefit gained (though the actual proposal is for a flat-rate, not a graduated, tax). The idea of students paying the ‘cost of the course’ is one of the places where the whole commercial language of students as customers making price-sensitive purchases is so misleading.
Any calculation of the ‘cost’ of a university ‘course’ is pretty notional anyway. So much goes on at a university that is not specific to any particular course that it’s next to impossible to work out the real ‘costs’ spent on each student (as opposed to some arbitrary percentage of existing departmental budgets and so on). And in any event the ‘cost of the course’ principle has potentially pernicious consequences: no one with a vocation to do so should be deterred from studying medicine because the fees are higher, any more than someone should unenthusiastically enrol for a philosophy degree because it’s cheap. Ever since ‘Blunkett’s botch’ in 1998, when the then Secretary of State for Education, in the face of expert advice to the contrary, opted to introduce fees, payable by students in advance, and to phase out maintenance grants, the Government has been struggling, and failing, to combine the aims of widening access, forcing students to make a higher direct contribution to the costs of their education, and providing universities with adequate yet politically acceptable levels of funding. A suitably long-term form of the Graduate Contribution Scheme would be one of the least damaging ways to achieve these goals, top-up fees one of the most damaging.
Although the White Paper contains some proposals that may be welcomed, it is hard to see the panicky bravado evident in so much of its language ultimately helping to do anything but further demoralise universities. Which is not to say that we should be trying to go back to some status quo ante, even if there were any agreement on when, exactly, that was. But it would be a good start to acknowledge that the diverse activities now carried on in institutions called ‘universities’ may require to be justified in diverse ways. In principle, this should be done in a way that makes clear that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘inferior’, but in practice cultural attitudes may be too deeply entrenched. Just as a kind of snobbery helped to sink the idea of the polytechnics, so snobbery, and the anxieties snobbery expresses, may be the biggest obstacle to trying once again to differentiate types of institution in terms of their respective functions. It would also help if proper acknowledgment were made of the fact that the social patterns legible in the statistics about who goes to university are largely determined by forces beyond universities’ own admissions practices. It may be that the outdated perceptions about universities that fuel public suspicion about admissions will diminish as we approach the point where half the adult population comes to experience higher education at first hand (though that experience may foster other resentments). In that case, provided that a broadly satisfactory system of funding is put in place (a large and perhaps optimistic assumption), then it seems possible that, while there will always be individuals who feel they have been unjustly rejected by a university of their choice, there will be less political mileage to be made out of such cases in the name of ‘access’.
What is more doubtful is whether any government will have the political courage to declare a university education a social good the cost of which each generation helps to bear for its successors. This would involve acknowledging the limits of justifications couched exclusively in terms of increased economic prosperity. And, perhaps more difficult still, it would involve accepting that there are some kinds of intellectual enquiry that are goods in themselves, that need to be pursued at the highest level, and that will almost certainly continue to require a certain amount of public support. These may now form a relatively minor part of the activities carried on in universities, and it is much easier, using economic and utilitarian arguments, to justify the other activities; but they remain indispensable. Amid the uncertainties currently facing universities, the only certain thing is that these are all problems which will be exacerbated rather than solved by placing them in the lap of the market.