Nothing new about ‘Higher Ambitions’

Mr. Mandelson has today been on the radio and in Parliament preparing the ground for YET ANOTHER review of HE entitled Higher Ambitions that fails to offer anything we didn’t know.

Peter Mandelson

First reactions to this have revolved around increased tuition fees and redirecting funds to on-line, mature and part-time students.

We’ve taken the statement made by Mandy at BIS. It includes all the NuLab buzzwords, management jargon and public sector euphemism that you’d expect e.g. “widening access”, “strengthening our research capacity”, “framework”, “high level skills”, “competition”, “engaged”, “contextual data”, “critical mass” and so on.

The statement then sets out the main items of the framework which we’ll critically appraise:

* More competition between universities, giving greater priority to programmes that meet the need for high level skills;

Competition for what? Government funding? This already goes on and will only make a bad situation even more worse. It will also further the culture of silence that besets HE where no academic is able to speak out or be critical of Government. While we all know what ‘priority for high level skills’ is referring to – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Well, that’s all well and dandy but where’s the proof that having more non-Arts graduates is more profitable for UK plc than Arts grads? It seems to make prima facie sense but is there any proof? Did the most successful people in the UK study the STEM subjects? And, doesn’t the Service sector, where STEM graduates aren’t so vital, contribute 3/4 of total GDP? Why are we bothering with STEM subjects? Why not invest more in SSELL subjects e.g. Social Science, English, Languages and Literature as that’s where the money is?

* Business to be more engaged in the funding and design of programmes, sponsorship of students, and work placements;

Another idea that won’t go away. McDegrees have already been covered in this blog and we’d thought they’d been scrapped but here we go again. If businesses provide course, why do you need universities? To provide the unprofitable courses that students prefer?

* Creating more part-time, work-based and foundation degrees to make it easier for adults to go to university’s, with routes from apprenticeships through to Foundation Degrees and other vocational programmes;

This is nothing new. Raising tuition fees is hardly going to help.

* Encouraging universities to consider contextual data in admissions, as one way of ensuring that higher education is available to all young people who have the ability to benefit;

Not a new idea. Hasn’t worked so far as universities are resisting quotas and the middle classes will resist this in the election. Unless a real Old Labour party comes back from the dead or there is a long, drawn-out Depression, this is a non-starter.

* Universities setting out clearly what students can expect in terms of the nature and quality of courses offered;

Don’t they do this already?

* Sustaining our world class research base by continuing to focus on excellence, concentrating research funding where needed to secure critical mass and impact;

This crystal ball gazing will no doubt be implemented by the dreaded Research Assessment Exercise which according to the UCU, “has had a disastrous impact on the UK higher education system, leading to the closure of departments with strong research profiles and healthy student recruitment. It has been responsible for job losses, discriminatory practices, widespread demoralisation of staff, the narrowing of research opportunities through the over-concentration of funding and the undermining of the relationship between teaching and research.”

* Encouraging collaboration between universities on world class research, especially in high cost science.

Don’t they do this already?

In the House of Lords, Mandy repeated the oft-said mantra of more people in HE and more quality research. It is commendable that they wish to offer more flexible courses but the OU has been doing this very successfully for many, many years. And, it simply isn’t realistic to only “hope that all universities will look at their examples and consider incorporating such data in their admissions processes.” The only way to solve this problem is not ‘hope’ but quotas, but this is electoral suicide. If Little Johnnie doesn’t get his Oxford place then Nu Labour will suffer in the pocket as Daddy Johnnie pulls his financial support for the party.

Higher Ambitions for no-one but Mandy, it seems.

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