The price of inclusion
If the government wants so many students to get a higher education, argues Alan Smithers, it will have to let universities charge higher tuition fees
Inclusiveness is the government's new education mantra. It has even revised its mission statement to that effect. No longer is higher education to be elitist - in other words, concerned with identifying and developing talent - but about finding places for everybody. Universities are to be paid a bounty for recruiting the less well-qualified. The ivory towers have been stormed and thrown open to all. Surely something to celebrate?
Yes - but it depends on what people are being included into. If it were genuine higher education, then I would agree. But if, as increasingly seems likely, inclusiveness is a covert attempt to raise the school-leaving age to 21, it needs to be exposed for what it is: a kind of imprisonment, as any of the 'disaffected' 14- and 15-year olds who bunk off from school will tell you.
Historical analysis shows that compulsory schooling was instituted in the 1880s, not primarily for the benefit of children, but because too many of them were making a nuisance of themselves. What better way of keeping unemployed chimney sweeps out of mischief than requiring them to go to school and pass tests before they could leave? The subsequent rises in the school-leaving age were each mainly in response to youth unemployment.
It should have been no surprise, then, that the Thatcher government reacted to the unemployment crisis of the 1980s by expanding the universities dramatically. In order to stave off the threat to social cohesion, it badly needed acceptable ways of sharing out the jobs that were still available. Older people could be eased out by the rhetoric of 'you have done your bit, why not retire while you are still young enough to enjoy it?'. But the young would not play ball with the various youth training schemes. What they would do was to volunteer to go to university in large numbers.
What they had in mind were the universities of the time. These offered the opportunity to take subjects to the limits or climb the first rungs of real career ladders. They educated the carefully selected to a high standard in a short period of time with few dropouts. Because it was a small system the taxpayer could afford to provide both free tuition and maintenance grants. Although most degrees - apart from those with an obvious professional connection, like medicine - were not employment-related, employers saw them as a way of tapping into the top part of the ability spectrum, and a degree came to be regarded as the passport to a good job.
No wonder universities were attractive. The snag with scaling up was the cost. But the need to expand was urgent, and the government went ahead with doubling the number of places while almost halving the funding per student. There have been the inevitable effects on quality.
Universities have tried to retain their complement of academic staff, but have expected them to teach more and to larger classes. Salaries have not kept pace with those of other professions and the brightest and best have increasingly looked elsewhere. Support services have been drastically cut and staff can now find themselves having to clean their own rooms. All very egalitarian you may say, but it robs lecturers of that precious commodity, time: time to share ideas with students; time to help students develop their interests and talents; time to keep at the forefront of their subjects.
In an attempt to find more money for the universities, the present government has half-heartedly introduced tuition fees. But it has assuaged its guilt at having to do so by stressing inclusion. This will intensify the effects of the earlier expansion. Universities have had to adapt their courses to cater for a much wider ability range. Degree inflation has occurred as the older universities have tried to reflect the performance of their students relative to the broadening intake.
In increasingly desperate efforts to shore up quality and claim comparability of degrees across an impossibly wide range of institutions, universities have been forced to embrace quality assurance. While quality assurance can never deliver quality - that depends on a critical mass of talent - it can at least protect against litigation. But all the paperwork and procedures eat ever-more deeply into time for teaching, research and scholarship.
Many of the students entering universities this autumn will sadly find that what awaits them is a pale shadow of what they were expecting. There is no going back to the halcyon days, of course, and neither would it necessarily be desirable. Universities were often more self-indulgent than I've allowed. But what is the way forward? The answer - and I know this will be unpalatable to many - probably lies in realistic tuition fees.
Used positively, fees (backed by loans repayable out of the profits of obtaining a degree and generous scholarships and grants) could be the saving of our universities. First, they would allow universities to generate the income to provide high-quality education. Secondly, they would put more power into the hands of the students.
Students currently have to accept what the government is willing to make available to them. Since, as we have seen, there has been more concern of late with width than quality, university education has sprawled out in all directions. Hence the growth of so-called 'vocational' courses in, for example, media studies, rock music and curry making.
Making a realistic contribution to the costs of the courses would enable students to exert considerable influence on the future shape of higher education. Many of the excrescences of recent years would be sloughed off. A higher education system would emerge in response to individual wishes backed by personal investment. No longer would it be possible for the government or some committee somewhere to impose what it thought good for students. It would be for the universities to decide what they wanted to offer, and for the students to decide what they wanted to accept. It would become a democratic-meritocratic system.
At present, universities are caught between the rock of the government's wish to occupy the time of as many young people as possible to the age of 21 at the lowest cost, and the hard place of student representatives being unwilling to contemplate the advantages of fees. The ground in between - universities as we have known them - could be destroyed.
Alan Smithers is the Sydney Jones professor of education and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool
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Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999