Waiting for the ‘major review of university funding and student finances’ brings to mind the last proper review, the Dearing Review, 20 years ago. Having also spent time perusing HEFCE circulars from the 1990s looking for details of MASN, I’ve been quite nostalgic this term. 20 years ago I was in my first year as an Academic Registrar and these were exciting times. So I’ve looked up my notebooks to try and capture what was going on in autumn term 1997.
My notebooks record a busy term. There was the normal business of King Alfred’s College (now the University of Winchester) – professorial appointments, student disciplinary hearings, committees etc. Layered onto that was the prospect of change brought on by the Dearing Report and the impact on the college as it looked forward to gaining university status.
The scope of the Dearing review was huge. In addition to the issue of fees, the report had implications for all parts of the sector. In October Ron Dearing gave the Fawley Lecture at Southampton, framing the notion of the learning society and how higher education played a key role. In all the talk of change, Dearing stressed the enduring purposes of higher education, closing his lecture with the same Masefield quote that had been in the introduction to the report.
‘It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning and will exact standards in these things.’
By December details of the structure of the QAA were emerging, with the Gloucester location settled upon and a staffing structure agreed. Dearing set a huge agenda for the new agency though and much was still under active discussion, including the plans to create a register of external examiners.
In addition to a re-accreditation exercise by the University of Southampton, the college was dominated by the then HEFCE teaching quality assessment process. Using the graded profile method this precursor of TEF actually visited institutions; watching teaching and sampling work. My notes record the arrangements for the visits. One planning meeting genuinely started with a discussion of the state of the Gents toilet and that the whole building needed washing.
Then there was the grand theatre of the feedback meeting. The ‘scores’ for the graded profile were announced, the goal (at that stage) to ensured the provision was approved (by gaining 3 in each section) and then to maximise the reputational gain by getting as many 4 grades as possible. Much hung on those six scores. Notes of one feedback meeting record the mixture of criticism – especially on the lack of self-criticism (the self-assessment was ‘clear but bland’) – with praise for high quality teaching.
Ron Barnett’s inaugural lecture in November started with the cheerful claim that the western university was dead. Helpfully, out of a ‘constellation of fragility’ it could be re-born. If the university adopted an ethos of collective self-irony, it stood a chance. He raised the issue of supercomplexity and how the university must create uncertainty, especially in its teaching.
Issues in 1997 are very similar: in the institution it was about matching curriculum to student demand, structuring the academic year, matching staff workloads to RAE requirements etc. Outside, the issues of funding, autonomy and relevance were being shaped. However, Ron Dearing was right, higher education endures.