Fragmented higher education?
In the mid-1970s I was a student at Trinity College Dublin. At that time the College was re-assessing its role in Irish public life, but nevertheless most of the students felt comfortably superior to their counterparts at University College Dublin. TCD was founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. UCD was much newer, having its origins in either the mid-19th century or the early 20th century, depending on how you interpreted its history. At any rate TCD students tended to see the ‘other place’ as something of a parvenu, trading in vocational or maybe rural values that were worthy but not high value.
In the mid-1990s, when I was a Professor of the University of Hull, staff and students there felt themselves to be nicely superior to the then next-door University of Humberside (it later became the University of Lincoln), which had only just graduated from Polytechnic status. In the following decade I was President of Dublin City University, an institution whose transition to university status in 1989 had been fiercely resisted by many of those in the existing universities. And meanwhile back in the UK, the institutions that had become universities in 1992 were, in general parlance, seen as being in a different category from the pre-1992 institutions, referred to as ‘new’ or ‘modern’ universities.
Now a report has been published by a firm of consultants that suggests that in the United Kingdom (although actually I think the authors mean England) there is a taxonomy of universities with four distinct groups: (i) internationally competitive research universities; (ii) UK-focused research universities; (iii) teaching-focused universities with a UK-wide and international student base; and (iv) teaching-focused institutions with a predominantly regional student base. If one were to accept that these categories reflect recognisable divisions in the sector, it would suggest a fragmented system based not so much on diversity of mission as on age and perceived respectability. In football nobody is in League 2 because that’s where they prefer to be: they are there because their resources and reputation doesn’t allow them to play in the Premier League. In the university league, history and resources place (to use an example referred to in the above report) Northampton University in the regional teaching league, but if they could I have no doubt they’d love to be up there in the international champions’ league.
Britain loves a class system, and that’s what they’ve got in higher education also. As a result university ambitions are built around upward social mobility, whether that is attainable on traditional methods or not. But actually, what the system needs is not a yearning for the good times of league table elitism, but a genuine diversity of mission, with each mission being pursued because the institution believes in it and would want it even if something more traditionally respectable were available instead.
Today’s society needs at least some universities that are willing to be different, and that are willing to experiment with imaginative aspirations in relation to pedagogy, economic and social impact, cultural regeneration, and so forth. These aspirations need to be seen by those institutions as representing excellence that is as desirable as anything offered by Oxford, and they need to be quality-marked accordingly. The trick to achieving this lies in niche-based prioritisation and high value resourcing. And success probably lies in being visibly outside any category that a consultant’s report might produce.
It is time to diversify higher education based on vision and mission, not on history and old-age respectability.