BBC Radio 4's Analysis: Training Minds, was broadcast on Thursday, 30 November, 2006 at 20:30 BST.
Student celebrates graduating
CPS:LINK HREF="http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/programmes/analysis/transcripts/30_11_06.txt" STYLE="rightarrow">Read the programme transcript
Higher education is expanding rapidly in Britain, with the government aiming for half of all young people to attend university by 2010.
And a new funding system is taking shape, with many students in the UK having to contribute much more towards their teaching fees.
But behind all this change lurk much more fundamental issues about what a modern university education is really for.
In this week's Analysis, Ruth Scurr, who teaches at Cambridge University, investigates the battle for educational ideals, and the battle for the resources to fund them.
On the one hand students are becoming more like consumers, shopping around for the best courses, and inclined to choose more vocational subjects that, they hope, will lead to a better paid job.
Industry and government are keen to encourage this vocational trend, seeing universities as key players in local economies, and essential suppliers of skilled labour.
Defenders of a more traditional education, on the other hand, argue that their ideal of a 'trained mind' not linked to specific job skills is as relevant as ever, and that students of unfashionable subjects like Classics or modern languages still become highly adaptable employees.
And the top universities which offer the broadest range of subjects say they need extra government funding to compete internationally in research as well as teaching, keeping Britain at the forefront of global brainpower.
What we may see, is that the higher education sector becomes more and more split between elite universities offering old style residential courses, and more informal universities offering much more flexible learning tied to their communities.
But that will be politically sensitive if the elite seems more and more confined to students from wealthier backgrounds who've had the best school education.
Contributors to the discussion include Professor of Classics Mary Beard, Frances Cairncross who heads the Economic and Social Research Council, Professor Ian McNay of Greenwich University and Gemma Tumelty of the National Union of Students.
Presenter: Ruth Scurr
Producer: Chris Bowlby
Editor: Nicola Meyrick