EDUCATION: Why Higher Education Is in Better Shape Than When I Started; Peter Knight, the University of Central England's Outgoing Vice-Chancellor, Believes He Is Leaving the Higher Education Sector in Better Shape Than When He Started. He Tells Education Correspondent Shahid Naqvi Why

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Byline: Shahid Naqvi

The trouble with students today is they're not frisky enough, says Peter Knight.

"Students are much more serious. It is maybe because there aren't big issues to fight against. Despite current concerns, there isn't a major global issue like the Vietnam War. There isn't anything for a protest movement.

"Students are quieter, more hard-working and more earnest. It makes for a quieter life for vice-chancellors. But I was slightly frisky when I was young and became dull when I got to 40.

"I hope they get friskier when they hit 40."

The fun-loving out-going vice-chancellor of Birmingham's University of Central England is as well placed as any to observe how student life has changed after 21 years at the helm of the institution.

He has led the establishment as it gained freedom from local authority control in 1989, acquired polytechnic status and then eventually became a university.

Despite the controversial reforms that have hit higher education in recent years, he believes he is leaving a sector in which both students and universities are healthier than they have ever been.

"Students do a lot more good and less selfish activities than in previous generations," he says.

"They do voluntary work in the community and support other groups. The amount of drinking in union bars has progressively declined over the last ten to 15 years."

As far as tuition top-up fees are concerned, he is convinced the eventual compromise struck to get the Bill through Parliament represents such a good deal for poor students it's almost unaffordable.

"I was initially uneasy about the consequences and I am surprised by what happened," he says.

"What has happened is absolutely nothing. There has been no detectable effect. When you think about it, it is not surprising. The fee and the loan are not a fee and a loan in the way everyone else understands it.

"Your fees are paid for you and when you can, you pay tax, like road tax or fuel tax. If you are a 17-year-old, the fact that you are going to pay tax when you are 25 is a lifetime away.

"The Government ended up with such a generous system of support that its impact is so far downstream as to be almost undetectable. It is a brilliant deal - in fact it is so brilliant it is practically unaffordable."

Even though UCE caters for students who are typically less well off than those at many other higher educations institutions, Dr Knight is not even unduly concerned about the prospect of the current pounds 3,000 cap on tuition fees being lifted. …