The history of reviews of higher education is a history of near-misses. The Robbins report gave us plate-glass universities to put alongside the existing redbrick universities, but missed the chance to sell the California Master Plan to the Government and create a genuine mass higher education system. We contrived some of what we needed via the binary system, as the polytechnics of the 1970s taught more and more of the new entrants to higher education both economically and effectively; but it was something of an accident.
We mistakenly emancipated the polytechnics in 1992, because we did it for bad reasons and on bad terms. It was a mistake because it placed them under the obligation to pretend to do cutting-edge research - which almost nobody does anywhere, let alone everyone everywhere - and to tell half-truths about the standard to which their students could plausibly be expected to work. It was done, so far as one can tell, to push up the age-participation ratio without adequate investment in new higher education places and to keep costs down throughout the sector.
The Dearing report didn't help; it was a political fix to get the outgoing Conservative Government and the incoming Labour Government off the hook of tuition fees on the one hand and to hide the implications for public expenditure of a real expansion of higher education on the other. The standard dishonesty of democratic politics is to pretend that the public can have whatever it wants in ever-increasing quantities while taxes are steadily lowered.
Then, the mania for central control that seized both Margaret Thatcher and new Labour was reflected in the combination of simple self-deception and a determination to make falsehoods come true that marked the period after 1997. The self-deception was patent when Margaret Hodge, who was then Education Minister, complained that a critic who had said that some places inevitably taught to a lower level than others was guilty of snobbery because everyone knew that standards were uniform throughout the system. A year later, she joined in the complaints against "Mickey Mouse" degrees.
The Quality Assurance Agency institutionalised the attempt to make falsehoods true; it cannot very well claim that physics at Imperial College London is no more demanding than the science taught as part of surfing studies at the University of Plymouth, so it concentrates on departmental paperwork instead. "Quality" assurance has never been about the quality of the physics but about the quality of the record-keeping.
So, what might the Universities Secretary's review usefully do? Plenty, but John Denham is asking a lot of his reviewers to have it done by the end of July. We are looking ahead 15 years, and chewing over the answers will take a while. Here, nevertheless, are a few premature thoughts, and a coda on what we should really put our minds to.
The questions Mr Denham poses are mostly the right ones, although the undercurrent is the usual nonsense: why can't universities magically improve the productivity of UK industry by producing a million highly skilled, co-operative, amenable and undemanding employees every year while providing instantly applicable technical innovations adapted to the needs of a UK industrial culture with 130 years of hostility to innovation behind it?
Tinkering with intellectual property rights can do something to encourage academics to think about technology transfer - though it can also have the effect of destroying co-operation between academics who become wary of their colleagues walking off with their ideas and making a fortune from them. And it is certainly true that we should not only say but actually mean that different institutions can do different but equally important things, and can do them to a high standard.
The review's obsession with international comparisons may not be healthy. The question is not whether we are better than everyone else: they may do appallingly, or alternatively do so well that doing as well as they do would be quite enough to aim at. Higher education in the UK is going to affect students and ex-students who will mostly live, work and bring up families in the UK. We compete with other university systems mostly for students capable of paying overseas fees. In terms of the wider good, German higher education is not very good, while German industry runs rings round its British competition.
Above all, we need to revisit the California Master Plan. Unless we have really low-cost routes into higher education, the deterrent to the half-hearted is too great; but unless we borrow the Californian system of credit transfer that allows students from community colleges to migrate to the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles for their final two years, there are no ladders for the bright student who finds a passion for academic work.
Similarly, unless we can contrive some analogue to the California state university system, we distract everyone from doing what they usefully can - excellent teaching to the MA level - by pretending that every institution has to have PhD students for the sake of self-respect. For 45 years we've got it wrong; we might enjoy doing the right thing at last.