IT IS NOW some months since my Department published a discussion document, "Higher Education into the 1990s", which exposed to public debate what we sec as some of the key issues for higher education policy over the next 15 years or so.
That debate is now underway, and we are looking forward to receiving preliminary views from the main interests within the next few weeks. So it is particularly timely that the Catholic Herald should now be publishing a special report on higher education; and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to it.
Ever since the Robbins Committee reported in 1963, successive Governments have adhered to the Robbins principle that higher education should be available to all those able and wishing to pursue it. In practice, much the greater part of the provision made has been geared to the demands of 18year-old school leavers for full
time or sandwich courses of•higher education. These are the
basic traditions we inherit today. My Department's discussion document asks whether they can constitute a sufficient .guide to the future.
One certain thing about the next few years is that the
number of 18-year-olds will start to fall, reflecting the persistent decline in the birth-rate since 1964. Even allowing for a steady rise in the proportion of the age group participating in higher education, the total number of young home entrants is likely to reach a peak in 1983/84 and to begin to decline sharply at the end of the 1980s.
Without new policies for higher education, this raises the unwelcome prospect of investing large capital sums in expansion to meet temporary needs. So demography effectively compels us to ask some fundamental questions about
the nature and purpose of our higher education system.
Despite the vicissitudes of changes in the general economic climate, my predecessors and I have broadly maintained a policy of providing higher education places to meet expressed demand. Over the years, this has meant a major expansion. But when student numbers seem likely to rise and later to fall
away again, we are bound to consider the case ror intervening more positively, perhaps by channelling peak demand in some new direction or by seeking to stimulate demand in the years beyond the peak.
If this is to happen, what criteria should guide our hand? Are there particular kinds of provision which should be encouraged and others to which less importance might be attached? If so, what means might achieve the desired results? These are some of the issues of principle which underlie the series of rather more specific questions posed in the discussion document.
Finding answers to those questions will involve important educational judgments. It may be, for example, that more young people could benefit by deferring their entry to higher education for a year in employment after leaving school. We must ask whether, without additional staff and buildings, our institutions might temporarily squeeze in more students and yet maintain the quality of their education.
There is also the lunch larger question of whether it is right that most people's experience of higher education should be confined to their late teens and early 20s without recurrent opportunities to return to it during their working life.
B ut educational judgements 'alone are not enough. We must bear in mind the requirements of good institutional management: too radical a change in policy might impose intolerable strains on the system and on those who staff it. We must not neglect the pecuniary cost of continuing existing policies or of im plea:tenting new. ones: expenditure on higher education cannot be isolated from other educational expenditure, nor indeed from wider public expenditure considerations.
New higher education policies also need to be set in a broader economic and social
framework. Our national
economic recovery will require higly trained scientists, technologists and managers at all levels in industry.
Again, if we are to expand adult education, at least part of the associated provision might be specifically designed to help people in work to keep abreast of rapid technological change. The social context is equally important. What can we do to improve the present lamentably' low participation in higher education by children or manual workers? at a narrower level, can we sensibly plan for an expansion of adult education without closer contacts between higher education institutions and their local communities?
In this article, 1 have deliberately avoided offering answers to the questions I have raised — and indeed the questions themselves are by no means an exhaustive list. The whole purpose of' my Department's discussion document is to encourage other people to give us their views.
We very much want to hear from everyone with an interest in higher education, particularly from the institutions themselves — including of course the Catholic colleges — about how they see their own future role. Without this, we cannot hope to chart the right course through the challenges and opportunities of the coming decade.