Music fans of a certain vintage will have been reminded this week of the disappointment that greeted the release of the Stone Roses second album. Coming four and a half years after the Roses’ ground breaking debut, the ‘Second Coming’ was doomed from the start. Nothing would be good enough to satisfy the anticipation that the long delay had created.
(You see where I’m going with this don’t you?)
Even allowing for the extended period of pre-release hype however, the album was a let down in almost every way. Fans looking for more of the band’s innovative fusion of guitar hooks and dance beats were greeted with overblown riffs and cod blues posturing.
Now, THE might be a long way from NME, but the reception given to this week’s higher education white paper is not dissimilar to the one that greeted ‘Second Coming.’ Lovers of HE have spent months preparing for an epoch-defining set of policy proposals that would fundamentally change the way that universities operate in the UK. What we got was a plodding series of technical fixes to tidy up issues created by last year’s finance changes.
Of course, just as the Roses sophomore effort had a couple of cracking singles, there is the odd dash of bold radicalism in the white paper. Measures to dynamise the allocation of student places will have a profound impact – although much like a widdly John Squire solo they could do with tightening up (will favoring institutions charging fees below £7.5k drive down quality? Are entry grades of AAB the best measure of institutional excellence?) For the most part however the White Paper lacks ambition.
The social and economic importance of universities should not be underestimated. University research is where scientific discovery and technological innovation begins. It is where the insights are found that help us confront the social challenges of our times. The international reach of universities helps foster relations and understanding between nations, helping to make the world more secure.
And yes, universities are where people go to study, widen their horizons and prepare for future careers. Making sure that they have an outstanding experience while doing so is rightly the government’s top priority, but they need to recognise that students usually thrive most in institutions that excel in every area. The best student experiences often take place on vibrant cosmopolitan campuses, where excellent teaching is informed by world class research.
So what else should the government have put into the white paper? First, a dose of internationalism. Tough rhetoric on ‘bogus students’ and measures to tighten visa restrictions have sent out signals that HE in the UK is closing its doors to the world. This could not be further from the truth. International students are welcome on campuses, and institutions are jumping to form international partnerships and establish overseas presences. How about some measures to help smooth the way for these international links?
Second, support for long term excellence in research would be welcome. We’re promised some measures in an innovation paper later this year, but why should research be decoupled from students in this way? Proposals to support undergraduates in the transition to post-graduate study and research careers would be a good idea, as would measures to reward leading researchers who spend substantial time teaching.
Finally, and in light of the cuts to capital funding, how about something to help lever in alternative investment? Moves to scrap VAT disincentives on shared services are good, but what about a commitment to boost philanthropic giving and facilitate private sector infrastructure partnerships?
These are just a few quick ideas on how the white paper could have been a tad more ambitious. Given the time taken to prepare it, it would be surprising if the Ministers and officials in BIS had not had a few of their own. They may not all be hits, but at a time when resources are scarce, radical thinking is the best source of innovation. It would not have hurt to have been able to have a look at some of these ideas.
We shouldn’t be too down-hearted though. A few years after the disaster of the Second Coming, Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown put out a low-fi, sparsely produced solo album that satisfied on almost every level. David Willetts may yet surprise us all, just as long as he hasn’t been listening to The Seahorses….