Confusing the terms of the higher education debate

It is an uncomfortable truth that in comparative terms, and much as it may make us feel better to argue the opposite, especially in difficult times, in the UK we are a ‘lucky’ system of higher education. Despite the pressures of a hyper-active political context, we have maintained a ‘buffer’ between ourselves and the government of the day.

We have broadly been well-funded at times, and less well-funded at others; our levels of student satisfaction are relatively high compared to those in similar national sectors, although they may be slipping – for predictable reasons. The bar remains high on degree-awarding powers and university title, while – although they creak from time to time – the processes of mutual assurance of quality and standards remain intact.

However, we are now entering another one of those periods when we need to be a smarter system. We are facing another potential perfect storm: of national policy confusion (exacerbated by devolution), of funding uncertainty, and of diminished public confidence. Survival and prosperity will once again only securely be achieved – as they have been in the past – by taking responsibility for our own affairs.

One of the problems we face is that we have tended to confuse the terms of the subjects we are discussing.

For instance, we talk about the admissions dilemma: is it about the pursuit of ‘excellence’, or more about ‘social mobility’ or even ‘social justice’? We talk about ‘widening participation’ as if it is the same as so-called ‘fair access’, and vice versa. The two are logically separable phenomena. The first – getting more students qualified and to the starting-gate - is a big problem. The second – where they choose to apply, and are admitted – is a comparatively tiny problem.

Another category mistake is when we talk about the scope of the higher education ‘sector’ from the points of view of policy, of practice and, critically, of self-image when we should be talking about ‘tertiary’ education [which includes higher education]. The emerging question internationally is how both higher and further education sit within frameworks of lifelong learning.

As an extreme example of new formations, the University of Peshawar in northern Pakistan sustains all levels of learning from nursery school to PhD. Charles Darwin University in Australia's Northern Territory holds wonderful open-air awards ceremonies recognising everything from certificates in adult literacy to doctorates.

Then there is the myth of research concentration. This is not just about the stark conclusion that in the UK we have concentrated public funding of research to the point where it has become dysfunctional, but also talking about institutional research intensity when we should be talking about inter-institutional collaboration.

As university leaders, policy-makers and funders focus on league tables and so-called competitive advantage, they are actually being undermined by the scientific community’s ever-increasing tendency to cross boundaries.

Locally (in the UK) this should cause us to think long and hard about the upcoming Research Evaluation Framework (REF). Two outcomes are certain. Hyper-concentration of funding in the hands of a few ‘QR (quality-related) winners’ will continue: four higher education institutions will continue to scoop about 30% of the spoils, and up to 23 about 75%. As a result we shall have to learn to live with a two-tier system frozen in a state set somewhere between 2001 and 2007.

Two tiers will represent a policy trap for various reasons. Entry to the top tier will become virtually impossible. Life among the QR winners will not, however, be a bed of roses. Missions here will become narrower as internal concentration of resource mirrors external funding. They will also be increasingly dominated by medicine and science; not least because funding required to ‘match’ investments in science and technology will progressively bleed the arts and humanities.

It is also likely that the QR-winners’ relative decline in the ability to ‘gear’ or ‘leverage’ public money into private support will continue.

As for the rest of the institutions, life outside an inflexible and backward-looking QR-winners' circle will have its compensations, as well as some ongoing challenges. For instance, a concerted effort must be made to demonstrate that institutional reputations (including for research) can be made away from an RAE-REF, which will cease to be ‘the only game in town’.

All this will mean adapting to a world of wider and deeper collaboration, in which at many of its scholarly frontiers the isolated institution is no longer the power it once was.

This links directly with the madness of supposedly ‘world-class’ provision, especially as identified by international whole-institution league tables. At present both politicians and institutional leaders (the latter should know better) are obsessed with a poorly designed concept of comparative ‘world-classness’, when they ought to be talking about geographically specific ‘engagement’.

What governments say they want from higher education systems represents almost the opposite of what the international league tables they also exhort us to climb actually measure.

Here are two starkly different lists: of what governments at a variety of different levels say they want higher education to do and what the ‘world-class’ tables rely upon.

What does not count in international league tables:
  • • Teaching quality.
  • • Social mobility.
  • • Services to business and the community.
  • • Rural interests.
  • • Other public services.
  • • Collaboration.
  • • The public interest.
What does count is:
  • • Research.
  • • Media interest.
  • • Graduate destinations.
  • • Infrastructure.
  • • International ‘executive’ recruitment.
Despite Herculean efforts everything reduces to peer-reviewed research, and even that is problematic because of the inexorable rise of collaborative outcomes at the very highest levels of achievement.

An example is the recently remodelled Times Higher Education World University Rankings, 2011-12. Sixty percent of the inputs are claimed to be generated by research ‘volume, income, reputation and influence’ and 30% for ‘teaching’. When you drill down, however, you discover that 70.5% of the whole data set is driven by research-based activity.

Next, there is no clear blue water now (if there ever was) between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ sectors; what often makes the difference is how the private sector can be used for public purposes.

Meanwhile, we have the ironic phenomenon that as universities are urged to be more ‘business-like’ (admittedly on a rather outmoded version of what complex ‘business’ actually consists of), many successful businesses are becoming more ‘university-like’. The whole domain of open source software illustrates this while other specific examples of companies include Whole Foods, WL Gore, Google and Linux.

These are just some examples of the kind of confusion we have created over the whole debate about the mission and purpose of universities.

If our system is going to succeed, particularly in the current climate, it will have to become messier, less precious, more flexible and significantly more cooperative. We will need the flexibility that a proper credit framework provides, all the more so in the light of current economic turbulence and the effects this is having on employment.

Large numbers of adults will be seeking to improve their qualifications without having to commit themselves to a long stretch of full-time education. This is not a technical issue: we have the systems. It is a cultural and moral issue: we fail to use these systems for reasons of conservatism, snobbery and lack of imagination.

In addition to cooperating better on access and progression we need to start tackling the issues listed above to show our commitment to learning to live with flux and contingency.

The system we have today is hugely better than the one that was declared to be broken in the context of the last national economic crisis of the 1970s, on all sorts of measures, including productivity and social justice. We mended and improved it then, largely in spite of rather than with the assistance of the governments of the day. Let us hope we can do it again.

* Sir David Watson is professor of higher education and principal of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. A full version of Sir David’s report, “Misunderstanding Modern Higher Education: Eight ‘category mistakes’”, is on the website of the Higher Education Policy Institute here.