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Matriculation Day at Oxford University: Threatened by the dead hand of Les Ebdon and his Office for Fair Access 

I was at a meeting the other day discussing the implementation of a new regulation whereby every potential student has to be given a KIS: Key Information Set, that is. The theory goes like this. Now that students are required to take out a loan of up to £9,000 a year to enter on a degree course, they need to know that they are getting value for money. So for every course — from sports management at Bournemouth to ancient Ugaritic at Cambridge — they must be able to find out class size, number of hours teaching per week, performance in the National Student Survey, degree results, dropout rates, employment prospects and even the average salary of former students six months after graduation. Armed with a KIS, they will be able to make an informed choice.

I suspect that most students will go on making their course choices in the traditional way, by reading prospectuses and going to open days in order to find out whether the University of Uxbridge will offer them the opportunity to develop their budding passion for American poetry or particle physics or Phoenician archaeology or the DNA of fruit flies and whether the lecturers seem enthusiastic and the existing students happy. The danger is that, as a result of staying up all night before the open day preparing the statistics for their KIS, the lecturers will seem tired and disillusioned, so the choice may well boil down to whether the existing students look . . . er . . . kissable.

As yet, the doomsayers who welcomed the coalition's new university funding regime with riot on the streets and prophecy of educational apocalypse in the blogosphere have been proved wrong. Application numbers would plummet. Wrong: adjusting for the demographic bulge in the previous two years, overall numbers have fallen by a tiny amount. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds would be deterred from trying for university. Wrong: the numbers emanating from dodgy postcodes have increased, perhaps as a result of the generous fee discounts and bursary provisions that are being put in place. The humanities were the particular target of funding cuts. Wrong: most universities have discovered, on feeding the new fees through their Resource Allocation Models, that it is  the hard sciences that do badly. The opening of the market to private providers would lead to an influx of KwikSave-style operators, with cheap prices and shoddy standards. Wrong: so far the only new private competition has come from A.C. Grayling's New College of the Humanities, which seeks to operate more at the Fortnum & Mason end of the market, offering traditional high-class fare — the liberal arts and one-on-one tuition.

Could it be that the real problem will prove to be not the Conservative Coalition's marketisation of the universities, but the Liberal Coalition's regulation of them? The advent of the KIS, the increased powers for Offa (the Office for Fair Access, our old friend Toffwatch) — like so many other institutions in modern Britain, the universities are being strangled by yet more red tape. Academics whinge more than they should — we do not have to mend roofs in rainy weather or empty the contents of our offices by the end of the day because the boss has decided on a whim to let us go — but their biggest complaint is fully justified: there is too much bureaucracy in the modern university.

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eamonn harris
April 17th, 2012
8:04 PM
Despite a keen awareness of my own obvious limitations and your very eminent position, your inspiring essay prompts me to add a few remarks. We made space for slide rule and clip board management because too many all-rounders became degenerates who peopled and presided over debauched academies. They fostered slovenly habits of thought and cultivated the demotic. That disintegration was the result of poor leadership; a failure to inspire, to cherish talent and secure high standards. Yet the demand for more “qualified workers” was growing and the unions/associations clamoured for all graduate entry. The sector was to be expanded and improved. The elixir was “management by numbers”. A remedy that had the added merit of boosting the political ambition to promote more “ordinary” people. Thus from this present-moment-in-time, our quality was measured, controlled, assured and total, going –forward. Our masters bought the nostrums in the belief that they would sweep away the fusty gowns and infuse the thrust and rigour of business into academia. Clip boards and slide rules were present when some inspired leaders led their outfits to the heights, but it was the leadership that was decisive, the mechanics incidental. The habits of thought, quality of judgement, the care for language, the passion for quality have been steadily replaced by the lists, the scales, the benchmarks, the milestones and the acronyms. Sadly your argument , “The long-term future of the humanities is bright because the training in critical thinking provided by the humane disciplines” rests uncomfortably on an inference. Remember, ab posse ad esse non valet illatio. It is not enough to shout “stop meddling”, there needs to be a mechanism which points to success and praises it and points to mediocrity and condemns it. Oh dear! That’s elitism.

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