Higher Education: A New Framework

Higher Education: A New Framework

Commentary on the Government’s White Paper
Published November 1991

This document incorporates comments received from many members of the NCUP in response to a preliminary version circulated as Green Paper No. 3 in August 1991. The document represents a clear consensus, but on several of the points discussed differing opinions are held by a minority of the NCUP’s membership. In particular, there are minority views against the proposed abolition of the binary system.


Proposals in the White Paper of May 1991, which will be borne out soon by legislation, are reviewed critically but on the whole sympathetically. The main conditions for successfully expanding participation in higher education are outlined in §2. Consequences of creating a unitary system are discussed in §3, where several anxieties are recorded, but the proposed abolition of the binary line is welcomed. Requisites for assuring quality of teaching and learning are highlighted in §4, and the prospective importance of European collaboration is emphasised in §5.

Based on hope that the Government’s proposals should be effective, the commentary focuses on the imperative need for strengthened support in three key areas: the education of 16-19 year olds, resources for university teaching, and maintenance of the essential infrastructure for research.

1. Introduction

The concern of the NCUP with the needs of British higher and further education, particularly with the maintenance of quality and the success of future developments, extends beyond the immediate interests of its members. We therefore find much to welcome in the Government’s White Paper Higher Education: a New Framework (Cm1541, May 1991), and we look forward to a constructive debate on the new legislation.

The main proposals announced in the White Paper are closely interdependent. The prospective expansion of higher education will inevitably make an impact on the nature and scope of the teaching and research activities undertaken by staff in higher education, and the task of sustaining quality will become more difficult. The proposed new framework for funding and the abolition of the binary line between universities and other institutions of higher education will also affect the demands of quality assurance, which in our view should remain paramount as growth is encouraged. Connections between some of the proposed changes which are desirable in themselves have not, however, been adequately recognised in the White Paper. We examine these connections in the following paragraphs.

2. Expanding Participation

The Government intends that, by the year 2000, nearly one in three of 18-19 year olds will enter higher education. There will also be increased demand for adult entry and for part-time study. Although comparisons between countries need careful qualification, particularly with regard to the lower completion rates in other systems, it is clear that in Britain the age participation index is too low at present. Throughout the academic community and among political parties, it is generally agreed that we recruit too few young people into higher education. Furthermore, we must try to repair the inequalities between generations that result from loss of opportunities by those who finished their schooling too soon.

Our concern is therefore not with the advantages of expansion, which are self-evidently in the national interest. It is rather with the conditions under which the proposed expansion can be achieved without damaging those attributes of our higher-education system that are admired internationally and by our own Government (White Paper, §l 07).

Conditions for a worthwhile expansion of higher education will be considered in more detail below. They can be summarised as follows:

Improving the education of 16-19 year olds so that they are better prepared for higher education. Improvements cannot rest simply on structural changes such as implementing the National Curriculum and granting independence to further-education and sixth-form colleges. They will depend more on promoting high standards of instruction over the whole range of academic and vocational education, by raising the status of teachers in these institutions, by providing help for them to become better qualified for their tasks, and by giving systematic encouragement through adequate salaries and wider support, including ministerial backing. The NCUP is concerned about the extent to which schoolteachers at all levels are under-encouraged and schools under-funded.

The expansion will rightly involve the creation of a unified higher-education system. Such a system will have to be very flexible: if it confuses uniformity of governance with uniformity of function, it will fail to preserve the qualifies for which British higher education has long been esteemed throughout the world. Differentiation of function, guided by proper analysis of what needs to be done and how it can best be achieved, will be imperative for an effective system.

For the successful expansion of higher education, staff must be well trained and their work properly evaluated. They must also be given ample remuneration and their due share of social approval. The Government’s recent attitudes towards salary adjustments for inflation, let alone increases in line with other professional groups, indicates a serious underestimation of the work performed by university staff, who are under increasing pressure to achieve multiple objectives with severely limited resources. In the long run, Britain will get the higher education for which it pays.

While the present emphasis on quality assurance is necessary, the Government’s thinking seems to be directed wholly towards procedures whereby quality can be assessed ex post facto. More thought should be directed towards providing teachers and researchers in higher education with working conditions that encourage good teaching and good research.

3. Ending the Binary System

We welcome the proposed abolition of the binary line, which the White Paper rightly describes as an artificial boundary between universities and other higher-education institutions. This boundary has disappeared or is disappearing in other countries, and in Britain it has been particularly artificial because it divides what is already a selective and restricted system. We believe that, given due safeguards, the renaming of polytechnics as universities will be beneficial. The White Paper expects certain advantages to follow from creating unitary Funding Councils, and from establishing general prescriptions for the funding of teaching and research. (However, we have some anxiety about dangers inherent in creating three individually unified but largely independent higher-education systems, two of which – for Scotland and Wales – will be comparatively small. The three will replace a system that is at least coherent on either side of the binary line.) The intention to provide core funding for teaching and research through the same channels is welcome, as is the implicit maintenance of the dual-support principle for research.

The Government should now clarify what it intends to do about the proper funding of the whole diverse range of higher-education functions. Our concerns about this aspect are summarised as follows:

Teaching in higher education covers a wide variety of disciplines and of levels within each discipline. Not all higher-education teaching is necessarily best conducted by staff actively engaged in research and scholarship. For certain types and levels of higher education, however, particularly postgraduate courses but also in some parts of undergraduate honours courses, the interdependence of teaching and research is crucial. The close connection between these functions should be accepted unequivocally in such cases, and provisions for it should be made in funding arrangements.

If a larger proportion of the population is to benefit from higher education, tertiary education will have to offer a wider variety of courses, including many where the teaching of transferable skills is important and many devoted to vocational training with instruction in specialist skills. To be successful, the unified system will have to preserve and consolidate those features of British university education that are widely recognised as excellent, being an unquestionably valuable national asset. For this reason, universities will continue to need adequate staffing and other resources, particularly if we are to maintain the high proportion of students successfully completing their courses. The relation between staffing levels and completion rates for students merits further investigation.

The case for functional differentiation is overwhelming in academic activities other than teaching, namely research and development, systematic scholarship, and consulting work. We welcome the proposals whereby polytechnic staff will be enabled to increase their research activities. In particular, they may obtain support by applying to Research Councils (a possibility that already exists) and core funding may be used to support those who display promise or achievement in research. We hope, however, that such distributions – or possible redistributions – of limited funds will not be based on a vague notion of “something for everyone”, but will be based rather on rigorous appraisal of what is being done and what can be achieved with supplementary support. We doubt whether the Funding Councils in their present form, or likely future form, will be able to undertake this task effectively. Unless they can, it is essential that existing good arrangements for the support of research and scholarship are not unnecessarily disturbed.

Reforms should not overturn arrangements that work well. At present universities employ about 30,000 permanent academic staff actively engaged in research and scholarship. They exercise their skills in well established departments and faculties with concentrations of physical resources such as laboratories, workshops and libraries, where successful research programmes can be carried out. It is likely that most of the research and scholarship undertaken within higher education will continue to take place in existing universities. Because these universities do not constitute a resource large enough for national needs, we welcome the proposed additions to their number; but this change should not be accompanied by an indiscriminate redistribution of functions and associated funding, which would lead to an inefficient use of resources.

Although imperfect, the present system is a workable means of fostering research and scholarship. The Research Councils are responsible for ensuring that individuals and departments are judged reliably in terms of their capacity to undertake worthwhile research. This important responsibility is difficult to meet at present when many good proposals chase too little money: for many deserving applicants, the process of gaining support for research has become a lottery. The Councils need much greater resources than they have at present, but at least they have a well-tested structure.

The research money at present disbursed selectively by the UFC constitutes a further good provision for the support of research, although we have certain reservations about the operation of research selectivity. First, it has been rightly criticised for favouring large departments and for deferring to established rather than potential reputations. Second, the money distributed selectively is progressively eating into the core of universities’ finance at a time when the total available is being reduced in real terms. Third, by no means all the resources needed for worthwhile research can be secured through Research Council grants, or grants from private foundations and public and private enterprises. It remains essential to provide sufficient funds for a healthy infrastructure, upon which individual research initiatives can be based.

In this connection it is crucial for the Funding Councils to recognise the difference between the research-funding needs of laboratory subjects, particularly those requiring expensive apparatus, and subjects where research is largely fieldwork or library-based. The main costs of the latter are for the time of permanent staff, which is comparatively difficult to fund through special research grants. Deliberate provision for research in this extensive and important category should be included in the basic strategy of the Funding Councils, and the question of a Research Council for the humanities should be reconsidered.

4. Quality

We welcome the Government’s general intention to endorse the role of institutions in assuring the quality of their own teaching and learning. We accept the stated need for some kind of audit and for arrangements standardising quality assurance. We approve the intention to require external assessment of quality, which will rightly be a prime responsibility of the Funding Councils.

We nevertheless have the following reservations:

The Government appears to assume that quality will be ensured by the creation of assessment procedures. But no attempt has been made to establish what resources are needed to ensure that quality can be sustained in a wide range of functions. Teachers at all levels in higher education are under pressure from increased student load and diminishing resources both in staffing and in research support. On any campus there are new groups of special-need students (e.g. overseas and mature) which intensify pastoral and social responsibilities at a time when the staff/student ratio is being deliberately reduced. We do not accept the Government’s assumption that quality has actually “improved”, when the only definite information is the pervasive evidence of reduced resources and increasing pressure to do more. Quality cannot be maintained in British universities at present, and comparisons with European university courses are not all in our favour (cf. §5).

We agree with the White Paper’s statements about quality assessment, but we are not sure that the means for its realisation will be effective. The White Paper implies that some system of external inspection may be imposed on the universities in due course. It is therefore timely to recommend adherence to well proven methods of academic appraisal as the only safe way forward. In our view, any future system of inspection in universities, if one is deemed to be necessary, should be based primarily on peer review, which has been well tested in previous assessments of teaching and research in particular subject-areas. Much experience, both here and in other countries, shows that peer review is a dependable approach to the exacting task of academic quality assessment.

The population at large expects a university education to feature certain valued qualities. Students expect to be taught by people who are contributing to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. They expect to gain intellectual confidence leading to critical independence of orthodox patterns of thought. In the UK, unlike most other countries, students generally expect to receive individual care and tuition. The Government’s emphasis on the economic function of higher education is not incompatible with these desiderata. But the White Paper has nothing to say about how these qualities are to be sustained against a background of declining resources.

Just as most individual citizens attribute certain advantages to a university education, society as a whole expects well recognisable qualities from institutions that are called universities. We believe this designation to be deserved only by institutions that meet the criterion generally adopted throughout Western Europe for the award of university status, namely a commitment to research and scholarship as well as teaching. The title of professor will be appropriately usable in those institutions that are redesignated as universities, but we believe that professorships should be restricted to those who have demonstrated leadership in their subject-area through research, scholarship or other related activities. We should welcome nationally agreed monitoring procedures for the use of the title professor, and we note with concern the practice of conferring professorships on those who occupy leading administrative roles in institutions but who do not meet the normal academic requirements for Chairs. The NCUP believes strongly that non-university institutions, in particular those to be redesignated as universities, should follow the example of the existing universities where such titles are conferred only after scrupulous internal and external appraisal of scholarly achievement.

5. European Collaboration

Regrettably, the White Paper makes no reference to prospects of increased interaction between institutions of higher education in Britain and those in other European countries. The NCUP believes that such prospects are crucially important for British higher education in the1990s, promising various forms of valuable development.

It will not be easy to move towards more extensive European co-operation, however, because the British system has major differences from those on the Continent, notably in respect of typical degree schemes. The best of our system’s distinctive attributes are worthy of conservation, and we should not aim at total compatibility with continental Europe over the next few years. But various wide-ranging steps need to be taken in higher education towards strengthening the nation’s capacity for partnership in Europe. For example, further efforts and resources should be devoted towards teaching foreign languages to graduates in science and technology. Another valuable measure would be to foster some knowledge of science among graduates whose main studies have been in humanities, notably graduates in modern languages who may find employment in commercial activities in Europe.

Although omitted from the White Paper, the possibilities for increased collaboration with Europe may be presumed to interest the Government. We hope that these possibilities will receive due attention in subsequent reviews of higher education by the Government, and in the deliberations of the new Funding Councils.

6. Conclusion

The NCUP appreciates the White Paper as an affirmation of policies that will provide greater opportunities for the people of the United Kingdom, for the community in general as well as for those working in higher education. We have drawn attention to several respects in which the White Paper has failed to identify the connections and mutual dependencies between its different proposals. It lacks precision on key issues such as the future modes of differentiation of funding and the relative status of the different functions performed by higher education. But university professors will do all they can to make certain that the expanded and newly unified system succeeds, both in maintaining the best attributes of the present system and in widening its capacity to meet the needs of our nation.

This document is approved for unrestricted circulation. Criticism or commentary will be welcome from any reader. Responses should be addressed to the NCUP Secretariat, School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 219, Reading, RG7 3XH.