The Future of Our Universities

Tue 2 Nov 2004, 00:00

Our universities have been much in the news, which is no bad thing. But, given the heavy political context of public discussion, the emphasis has been somewhat limited: on top-up fees on the one hand and on wider student admissions on the other. All too little interest in the fundamentals, what universities are for. And we have heard more from politicians than from the universities themselves.

So this lecture goes back to a basic vision, taking as a starting point the Robbins Report of four decades ago; appropriately as Lord Robbins was the first lecturer in this series. His report had no doubt about the fundamental roles of universities, covering teaching, " promoting the general powers of the mind", research and scholarship and the" transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship". The universities were regarded - rightly - as a most precious part of society.

Now some of the aims might be put differently, but the essence remains. The question is whether to-day's realities are forcing universities off-course. Are the financial pressures a threat to the fundamentals, above all teaching standards? And how harmful are pressures coming from government interventions and beaurocracy.

We have to face the key reality. At the time of Robbins we had what is sometimes called an 'elite' system. There were about 30 universtities serving some 5% of the age group. Today we have well over 100 universities, and over 40% of the age group enter, with a political target of 50%. So, in these four decades we have stumbled from an elite to a mass system without too much strategic thinking, either by government or the universities as a whole. The Dearing Report, issued in 1998, is the most notable exception.

This lecture looks at the long-term future against that background. Clearly the major issue is diversity. With so many universities, serving such a major part of the population, we need to ask what missions different parts of the sector, indeed different institutions, should seek to serve. Here are some key questions:

  • is it agreed that teaching is the central role of universities? If so, how can high standards of teaching be ensured in all universities, though perhaps different universities needing different teaching approaches, methods, learning links with students?

  • are present systems of university financing - substantially geared to

  • research - themselves a threat to teaching standards? .

  • what steps can secure a better future for academics? .

  • is there sense in ' teaching only' institutions, under-mining the traditional belief that teaching and research are inseparable? Or is it just a naming issue, i.e. that such institutions should not be called universities?

  • is the present system of research funding harmful to all but the 'top universities'; or is this as it should be, if the view is that it is just these universities that deserve most support? And is it only in these universities that graduate schools should flourish? And indeed also "big research”?

  • is a vital part of the future life-long learning? If so, how much of the universities' future is in part-time education and in distance learning?

  • should the future of the system have a regional emphasis, with each region being served by mergers of universities, further education colleges and schools?

  • given such a future, should universities be more concerned with schools and the teaching profession?

The point of the lecture is to approach such questions from the viewpoint of the universities themselves.

Lord Moser

About the speaker:
Claus Moser was born in Berlin and came to England with his family in 1936. After school at Frensham Heights in Surrey he went to LSE to study statistics, and then in 1943-46 served in the R.A.F.

Much of his professional life has been spent in the academic world. From 1946-67 he was on the staff of LSE, for many years as Professor of Social Statistics. His main work related to social survey methodology and applying statistical methods to social issues.

After a period as Head of Government Statistics ( 1967-78 ) and as Deputy Chairman of N.M.Rothschild (1978-84), he returned to the academic life as Warden of Wadham College, Oxford (1984-93). He was also Chancellor of Keele university and of the Open University of Israel. He has been on a number of Government and other public Committees, notably as Statistical Adviser to the Robbins Committee on Higher Education and on the more recent National Commission on Education. While Chairman of the Basic Skills Agency, he produced a report on literacy and numeracy. He is a Trustee of the Rayne Foundation and Adviser to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Earlier he was President of the Royal Statistical Society and also of the British Association for Science.

Much of Lord Moser's life has been devoted to the arts, both as an enthusiastic pianist as well as in involvements with major organisations such as the Royal Opera House where he was Chairman for a number of years. In recent years, he has been at the British Museum, on the Board of Trustees and as Chairman of its Development Trust.

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