The masses are coming to higher education – and they are bringing the disciplines of the marketplace in their wake.
To judge by the end-of-term rituals, academic life is much as it has always been. Students celebrate the end of their final examinations by getting uproariously drunk. Examiners prepare for weeks of deciphering illegible handwriting. Their more fortunate colleagues wonder whether to spend the next two or three months dawdling over an article or touching the continent.
Appearances are deceptive. The universities are destined to change more in the next five years than they have done in the previous half-century. The government is determined to treble the number of university students by the end of this decade. This pell-mell expansion will soon require the universities to rethink everything, from how they teach to where they get their income.
The expansion is already well under way. Five years ago, one in seven 18-19-year-olds went into higher education; today the figure is one in five. Within a year or so it will be one in four. In the past five years the number of students in universities has risen by 40%. The number in polytechnics has risen even faster.
Or rather, the number in what used to be called polytechnics. From next term the old “binary line” between universities and polytechnics will be removed: every polytechnic will be free to dignify itself with the title of university. At a stroke, this wick increase the number of British universities from 51 to 85, and will double the number of university students to 566, 000. At the next election, John Major will be able to boast that he has transformed university education from a privilege for the Brideshead set to a right for the Brixton crowd.
Allowing polytechnics to call themselves universities is not just a matter of changing their names – though names matter in the educational marketplace, as in any other. From April 1993 the universities and the polytechnics will compete for money on an equal basis, too. But anyone who expects unitary funding to produce a unitary higher education system is going to be in for a surprise.
Higher education will become much more diverse as well as much larger. The reason for it is a cunning change in finance. The old formula treated all academics equally. Potential Nobel Prize winners and dutiful tutors were paid to do research as well as teaching. The result was a system in which academics competed to produce the same product. All universities enjoyed long vacations (for research, naturally) and low student-to-staff ratios.
The education department has now started to disentangle salaries for teaching from money for research. The University Funding Council (UFC) plans to allocate most of its additional money for teaching to the institutions which pack in the most students. At the same time the UFC is increasingly awarding research money on the basis of departmental research-ratings rather than student numbers. And government research-councils (which are by their nature are uninterested in teaching) are getting the bigger say in distributing the cash.
This means that universities will have to play their strengths in competing for money. Prestigious universities will be able to resist expansion and make up their income from research grants. Their weaker rivals will have to concentrate on attracting more students and sharpening up their teaching. No wonder cynics say the binary line is not so much being removed as being redrawn at a higher level.
The result will be rapid Americanization of British higher education. At the top will be an Ivy League of ten research-minded universities, led by Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Imperial College. Another ten or so universities will be able to preserve their current mix of teaching and research. But most other universities will become teaching-led institutions. Next year, for example, Brunel University will receive a 13.8% in case of funding for teaching but a 3% real fall in funding for research. And at the bottom of the system will be a mass of vocational universities, little interested in research but desperate to increase their “throughput” students.