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Is there still a higher education sector? By Professor Sir David Watson (HEPI Occasional Report 8)

  • 24 July 2014

In the first HEPI Occasional Paper of 2014, ‘Only Connect’: Is there still a higher education sector?, Professor Sir David Watson calls for a new approach in three areas:

1. quality assurance: he coruscates “Successive UK governments’ privileging of the private over the public sector” and highlights “a blind spot: the fear that, if regulated to traditional standards, the private sector will simply not play”;

2. credit transfer: he highlights the repeated failure to implement credit-transfer arrangements within the UK, which has hindered lifelong learning and stems from “institutional protectionism, reflected especially in the reluctance to grant advanced standing on admission”; and

3. the benefits of higher-level study: he urges people to “probe beneath the supermarket superficiality of the Key Information Sets” and debates about costs to find the true value of higher-level study, arguing “higher education’s purposes come together in terms of self-creation and the authentic life, the habit of thinking deeply, and the capacity to connect with others empathetically”.

Sir David concludes “that there is still a sort of mutually-assured higher education enterprise”. But he labels the funding and regulatory machinery “unsustainable” and ends with a message that could be aimed at the new Universities and Science Minister, Greg Clark, by noting “Something else is going to have to happen, even if it is very painful and doesn’t happen quickly.”

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, picks up the gauntlet in his Foreword to the report by urging the sector to look at credit-transfer issues afresh:

“As the report makes clear, the Open University leads the field, but it ‘imports and exports more credit at explicitly HE level than the whole of the rest of the system put together’. Perhaps the OU is, in Martin Trow’s memorable phrase, behaving like a ‘safety valve’ that provides others with an excuse not to act?

“That would be a shame. Our position on credit transfer looks odd from the perspective of other nations. Yet it is not a divisive political issue. Has the time come to tackle the problem with renewed vigour?”


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