Higher education today: no way back but which way forward?

The shape and direction of higher education is under scrutiny, and with good reason. Changes in society and higher education itself have been such that serious mind-raking is in order. To press on regardless may well be an instinctive reaction to the external and internal pressures that loom large in higher education today; on the other hand, defeatism may not be far away either. Still, if the system does not attempt to keep pace with change, both approaches will leave the academic or the student or whoever else is involved gasping for breath.education.jpg (34003 bytes)

A breath of fresh air is expected in Britain later this summer, when the Dearing committee, set up in 1996 under Sir Ron Dearing to review the state and future of higher education in the UK, publishes its findings. And there is also life in higher education outside Dearing territory. The Finnish system has been through a fair number of upheavals since the late 1980s, and Ireland has had to respond to demands of its own.

It is no coincidence, then, that in April concepts such as divergence and convergence were brought home to the participants of the Finnish Institute's seminar on higher education.

But what constitutes higher education today? To Ken Marsh, Lecturer at the University of Greenwich, this was the key question. He made no bones about the notion that higher education in England and Wales, at least, is in danger of losing its sense of purpose. Expansionary pressures, the absorption of the polytechnics into the university system, and the blurring of lines between further and higher education have seen to that.

We seem to be in several minds, then, about what to expect from higher education. Is it to be a system for the masses or for the elite, and what are we to make of the inadequate funding system and the changing nature of the student body? What role is assigned to teaching and research, and do we promote a uniformity of standards or a hierarchy of institutions?

According to Marsh, there also remains the shadowy area of the changing relationship between state and higher education. Britain's universities may yet have to relinquish their autonomy and comply with a system where the control ultimately lies with the state or with market forces. This is why we need to know not only where we are heading but also who will grab the steering-wheel.

In Finland the steering-wheel was firmly in the hands of the Ministry of Education when polytechnics were introduced into Finnish higher education in the early 1990s. Calling it the single most important educational reform in Finland this decade, Pertti Törmälä, Rector of the Polytechnic of Espoo-Vantaa Institute of Technology, is convinced that the reform will establish what it set out to do and raise the standard of vocational/professional education.

Looking at the teething problems, it seems that although the state may have been at the helm when polytechnics were established, the execution of the deed left something to be desired. As Törmälä put it, the reform was also governed by political interests at regional and local level. These interests, combined with the targets for quantity and quality set by the Ministry of Education, will clash with institutional expertise and the desire for a measure of autonomy. Polytechnics in Finland should be allowed to develop along less rigid lines than has been the case so far.

More room for manoeuvre when it comes to money matters in higher education would also be useful. The two sides of the coin are cost and value. Professor Roderick Floud, Provost of London Guildhall University, explained his own conversion from the role of gate-keeper to an enabler. A product of a selective academic system keen on weeding out students at every stage - where successes were validated by failures - he had nevertheless turned away from the principle of exclusion, claiming that "Our role is not to keep people out, but to bring people in and help them realise their potential. This is not a universally held view, as there are still many who would enforce selection and say that more means worse. My heart and the evidence both lead me to reject these views. If anything, we still have a long way to go to expand higher education and to ensure that student potential is not being wasted."

Seminar on Higher education at the Finnish Institute

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