The A-level results, out last week, were better then ever. There are more university places than ever before. More of the students at university are getting better degrees. Surely this is a good-news story, of increasing participation and improving performance whichever way you look at it? Yet there is unease. The complaint from the Chief Inspector of Schools last week, that there are too many vacuous vocational degrees, has sparked off a passionate debate about the state of our universities.
There is no doubt that British universities have been transformed in the past 20 years. Superficially they are the same - there is still the pomp surrounding graduation day, with all the proud parents and photographs on the lawn. Visiting dignitaries are still wined and dined, professors and lecturers still come together in senate, give lectures, and organise the annual ritual of clearing the sports hall for exams.
But scratch the surface and you'll find things are very different. No longer are universities places of quiet reflection but of industry. There are production targets to be met for recruitment quotas, degrees awarded, and research output. A whole army of assessors, appraisers and assurers is there to secure the management of these functions. The scholar with time to think and share ideas has been pushed aside by the wheeler-dealer.
It is also obvious that the universities are financially stretched. Once- attractive campuses are showing serious signs of wear and tear, classes are overcrowded, the libraries are short of books, and academics are underpaid. Likewise, portering and cleaning have been cut to the bone.
Higher education seemed to lose its way in the massive expansion of the 1980s. The number of students at university had been successfully doubled in the 1960s, mainly through the creation of new universities such as Warwick and York, seeded with staff from the existing universities. But that was well planned and generously funded, while the doubling of the Eighties took the government of the day by surprise.
The growth in the Eighties was fuelled by the desire of the polytechnics to get on an equal footing with the universities. They spotted that there was an almost open-ended funding commitment and that the more students they took, the more money they would receive. Students were sucked in from all directions irrespective of whether or not they had A-levels, and this was claimed as a virtue in widened access and added value. Practical and technical certificates and diplomas were upgraded to degrees by the addition of academic theory.
The government, particularly the Treasury, was at first alarmed, but then soon recognised that this development provided a convenient solution to growing youth unemployment. There were not enough jobs to go round, but young people were reluctant to participate in the training schemes being provided. They would, however, volunteer in large numbers to go to university.
As the polytechnics emerged as universities, the problem of cost remained. Ways were soon found of cutting funding per student by nearly half. It became the proud boast of John Major's government that more than 30 per cent of school leavers, plus many people later in life, were able to go to university. Tony Blair says he wishes now to raise that figure to 50 per cent.
It became clear, however, that higher education had outgrown the capacity of the taxpayer to pay. The Blair government reluctantly grasped the nettle of tuition fees and at the same time, somewhat surprisingly, abolished maintenance grants.
Ever since, whether through guilt or not, the Government's main theme has been inclusion. But it will not pay to have the job done properly. Institutions that were once confident of their raison d'etre now seem deeply confused. …