21 April 1994 - 23 April 1994

Higher Education

Chair: Mr Jon Westling

Our conference in autumn 1992 on the troubled field of secondary education had made us aware of the need to look also at the adjacent one of higher education; and we recognised from the outset of our discussion this time that the universities too were undergoing, as much as the school sector albeit in different ways, processes of radical structural adjustment. Whatever our basic system - from the diversified market of the United States’ 3,400 institutes of higher education, to the close centralised control of France - there were challenges to function, to organisation, to standards and to relationships with other aspects of national life.

We asked ourselves the traditional question: what was the essential endowment that universities sought to bestow upon their students? Was it a corpus of knowledge, with perhaps a common core related to epoch and civilisation? a set of attitudes to life and knowledge? a set of intellectual skills of general applicability? The last in particular, most of us predictably thought, and also the shaping that came from taking part in a disciplined learning experience of some depth. But we were less sure that this was what students themselves, or the wider community, looked for. These “customers” (a term which alternately attracted and repelled us) often tended to think of higher education either as a panacea for all ills, or as the key route to preparation for a successful working life; in Britain, for example, much of the loss in university prestige which some of us perceived reflected disappointment (inevitable as university entry became a mass rather than an élite experience) that a degree had ceased to be a special voucher for the cream of jobs.

Such concerns, especially amid obstinately high levels of unemployment in Western Europe and much of North America, focused discussion sharply upon the interactions between universities and the world of work. Several participants argued strongly that if the universities were to retain funding from the community - indeed, if the community was to remain able to afford such funding - the universities must equip its products more effectively for earning a living in a competitive environment. Most of us were minded to accept this; but the questions then arising included whether the world of business was itself doing well in communicating to the universities just what it was that business wanted - specific professional knowledge? pragmatic and innovative attitudes? adaptable general capabilities? Business/university dialogue was perhaps better, or at least more truly striven for, than in the past; but we heard few claims that it was satisfactory. We doubted whether, even within firms, the Chief Executive Officer necessarily had in mind the same criteria as the Personnel Department; we saw the risk that dialogue would over-concentrate upon large firms; we wondered whether the market signals sent by pay rates were accurately aligned with the priorities business voiced in conferences. There was approbation for the greater involvement of business-people in university teaching (and perhaps in university research planning) and of university teachers in world-of-work secondment or other such experience.

Research, unsurprisingly, gave us trouble. Universities had always had to find a balance between effort in the pursuit of knowledge and effort in its dissemination and handing-on - that is, teaching. Many pressures in today’s world suggested some re-striking of the resource balance, not only within but between universities; but it was not easy to discern who should decide upon the striking, and by what criteria. Concepts of “markets” were of shaky reality, yet external direction, especially by governments, had an unimpressive record. The selection, whether by formal process or evolution, of “research-heavy” universities was awkward yet necessary; it imposed upon the chosen universities a special responsibility of dissemination (by wider means than just articles in learned journals), not least in order to help the non-chosen universities concentrate upon their central function of teaching rather than strive vainly for research excellence.

This discussion led us naturally to the question of subject coverage and priorities. We spared ourselves a re-run of banal arts v. science issues (though we did note in passing that, at least in England, student choice had for decades proved remarkably resistant to declaratory pressures towards science-based priorities; the reasons might well lie within the schools, whose crucial interface with the universities we recognised but could not adequately discuss. And we were intrigued to hear that more than half the PhD students in US universities in the fields of science and engineering came from other countries.) The point was acknowledged that the increasing speed of change in the world of work made specific prediction - especially by students themselves - of career-sustaining subject more and more precarious, and the acquisition of generic capacities (above all, the capacity to go on learning) correspondingly more apt. Many believed that universities still had some way to go - especially perhaps in Europe, and the older institutions - in readiness to construct courses crossing the boundaries of traditional disciplines.

There were calls for greater flexibility also in teaching method, with more vigorous use of modern technology in distance learning; and, if anything still more strongly, for flexibility in the age-ranges - and therefore the teaching-delivery forms - to which the universities looked for students. The fading, in the employment setting, of the concept of a single career-long job (or even a single career-long profession) implied a mounting need for re-education; and universities, though they need not and could not look for a monopoly of the higher end of that market, should certainly seek to make a large contribution in it.

Our spread of participation reflected very different national traditions of university funding, and we did not attempt to frame common principles for it. But we recognised that almost everywhere universities were having to broaden their resources, and to exploit autonomy accordingly. There remained however awkward tensions, for all those who continued to rely on a large component of taxpayer funding, between that autonomy and the expectations of governments (as spokesmen for taxpayers) in respect of oversight, influence and control. Universities could not realistically or legitimately brush aside such expectations; but vigorous disquiet was expressed - especially as from Britain and Canada - about the competence, the detailed depth, the “audit” orientation and the incentive patterns (ill-constructed, so it was argued) of much Government intervention. These criticisms did not go uncontested, or without retaliatory comment about the approach of the universities themselves in self-evaluation, self-governance and adjustment to change; but the general sense of suspicion and faltering mutual confidence was unmistakable.

We reviewed the role of universities within their more immediate local communities, and heard striking examples of what had been achieved, for example in Boston in extending support to a disadvantaged schools sector and elsewhere in reinforcing the facilities available in the arts. The risks were acknowledged of diverting the universities from their central purposes; but community involvement, exploiting the major assets the universities commanded, could indeed contribute directly to those purposes, as well as enhancing the valuation - essential to the universities in the long run - which the community as a whole placed upon them.

Throughout our debates the theme of diversity and that of standards ran alongside one another. We saw no incompatibility. Universities did not all have to conform to one model, with a single set of standards. What mattered was that they should make and sustain candid choices, taking account of their traditions and strengths, about what model, what niche value, they were to pursue; should identify the standards proper to those models; and should then cleave firmly to the standards so identified - which should include, for every student and for the handling of the university’s own affairs, a clear component of non-divisive ethical values. We managed to avoid a self-indulgent swapping of tales about excesses of political correctness, or of assaults upon the concept of objectivity in the search for knowledge; but it seemed evident, between the lines, that most participants saw universities as having a duty sometimes to resist waves as well as accommodate to them.

For all that we had reviewed a large array of continuing problems, awkwardnesses and tensions, the mood generally - and to an extent, one participant commented, that would not have been so readily shared in such a gathering a few years ago - was of confidence in the contribution the universities could make, and in their ability to adapt themselves so as to make it effectively. Whether the universities collectively were good enough at projecting this message to the community at large was questionable, and certainly questioned; but there was no real misgiving about the solidity of the message’s content

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Mr Jon Westling
Boston University: Executive Vice President and Provost


Professor Emeritus Dame Leonie Kramer AC DBE
Professor Emeritus; Chancellor, University of Sydney Senate

Dr John Ashworth
Director, London School of Economics and Political Science

Sir Kenneth Berrill GBE KCB
Chairman, Commonwealth Equities Fund

Mr C A Clark            
Under Secretary, Higher Education, Department for Education, London

Sir William Fraser GCB FRSE
Principal and Vice Chancellor, University of Glasgow

Sir David Hancock KCB
Executive Director, Hambros Bank Ltd

Mrs Anita Higham
The Principal, Banbury School, Oxfordshire

Mr Donald Hirsch
International Consultant; Associate Fellow, Centre for Education and Industry, University of Warwick

Sir Geoffrey Holland KCB
Vice-Chancellor, University of Exeter
Sir John Kingman FRS
Vice Chancellor, University of Bristol

Mr John Raisman CBE
Chairman, Council for Industry and Higher Education

Ms Auriol Stevens
Editor, The Times Higher Education Supplement

Dr Peter George
President, Council of Ontario Universities (on leave from McMaster University, where he is Professor of Economics)

Professor Bernard J Shapiro
Chancellor Designate of McGill University, Montreal

Professor Bernice Schrank
Professor of English, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Professor Ivar Ekeland

Professor of mathematics; President, University de Paris-Dauphine

Herr Hans R Friedrich
Director for Higher Education and Science, Ministry for Education and Science, Bonn

Professor Dr Klaus Landfried
President, Kaiserslautern University; Vice-President, Association of Vice Chancellors of German Universities.

Mr George B Adams
Debevoise & Plimpton: Senior Partner, London office
Dr Austin Doherty
Alverno College, Milwaukee: Vice President for Academic Affairs,

Professor John King Gamble
Professor of Political Science and International Law, The Behrend College, The Pennsylvania State University

Dr Elizabeth de Guevara R Hansen
Director, International Studies Program, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, VA

Professor Frederick Jacobs
American University: Professor (1985); Dean of Faculties (1985-92);

Dean Maximilian W Kempner
Dean, Vermont Law School
Dr Richard M Krasno
President and Chief Executive Officer, Institute of International Education

Dr Ernest T Smerdon
Dean of Engineering and Mines, Vice Provost, University of Arizona in Tucson