As I watch the new students arriving, I reflect that this is the 43rd year that I have been involved in the process. In 1974 I arrived as a fresher at Pembroke College, Oxford, one of the smaller and friendlier colleges; now I watch as pro vice-chancellor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, one of the smaller, friendlier universities. Across that period, the world of higher education has changed beyond all recognition. In 1974, fewer than 10 per cent of the population went to university; now more than 40 per cent go.
Back then, universities were funded by the government, with students receiving grants. This meant that they were restricted in terms of the number of students they could take. Now, we are effectively funded by students’ fees, and the only limits on numbers are those one can recruit.
There is a tension between past and present. From the past we inherit a great weight of governmental regulation of everything from our research outputs to the details of our teaching practice, all of which costs money. In the present, we should be spending money from student fees on our students and their experience, rather than on a bureaucracy on the scale of the old USSR. At some point that tension needs resolving.
What has happened is that a whole industry dealing in league tables has developed, which ranks universities by the various criteria reported via the regulatory processes. In what has become a highly competitive market, these tables have become of vital importance for parents and students contemplating investing more than £45,000 in a university education. In that context, it was good to see St Mary’s rise from 116th to 99th place.
It is easy to take a snobbish point of view of these things, but what students say about the quality of their experience, and what the statistics say about their chances of getting a job, as well as the number of them getting good degrees, all matter hugely. The fact that St Mary’s students are doing well in all these areas is a testament to their own hard work and that of my colleagues. Whatever the wider context, universities remain communities of scholars and students, and they are places where lives are changed.
I often hear, not least from those of my own generation, the view that there are too many universities and that too many students go to them who should not.
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