Leader: A peerless and humble champion

Ron Dearing left school at 16, but his unstinting devotion to higher education's highest aims have left the UK sector a better place

February 26, 2009

It is ironic that the one person who has had the most enduring effect on this sector in recent years was not an academic and left school at 16. But Lord Dearing, the principal author of the 1997 reports of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, "understood the value of education in general and higher education in particular", as David Greenaway, the vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, attests.

Although he will always be known as the man who changed university funding for ever with the introduction of tuition fees, Dearing's was a legacy of quality and access, and he was dedicated to bridging the divide between vocational and academic learning.

He was always humble despite his pre-eminence. When he wrote what would be his last guest leader for us in December, the accompanying email explaining his enthusiasm did not presume a familiarity with his career.

"I got my entry to education just about 40 years after I first sought it, when I listed it as where I would like to go when I passed an entry exam for the Civil Service at age 18. Needless to say, they sent me to a department I had never heard of, and when I arrived and they asked me where I would most like, or least like, to be allocated, they sent me to one of the no-nos.

"Then out of the blue, Kenneth Baker changed everything. I used to have keen exchanges with him as head of the Post Office when he was a minister in the Industry Department. Officials used to describe those meetings as spectator sport. They must have left their mark, and when he was in a jam over the chairmanship of the CNAA (Council for National Academic Awards), the call came.

"It was a couple of minutes before I had the nerve to ask what this CNAA might be. But that was it. I always say that my one good card was that I knew nothing about it; that this was immediately apparent; and that I did not come with an agenda, but wanted to listen instead of telling people what to do."

Dearing was always loyal and supportive, whether in the Civil Service, as chancellor of Nottingham or as a member of the Times Higher Education editorial board. He never voted in an election while a civil servant, because, he said: "How could I look a minister in the eye having just voted against his party?"

In point seven of his chairman's foreword to his report, he quoted Poet Laureate John Masefield in 1946: "Speaking of a university, he said, as we would now say of higher education as a whole: '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.'?"

Point eight says only: "It must continue to be so." That was the Dearing we remember.

Two of the four purposes in his landmark report were: "To inspire and enable individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life, so that they grow intellectually, are well equipped for work, can contribute effectively to society and achieve personal fulfilment," and "To play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society."

He did this and then some, and we can think of no better way to honour him than to rename the Times Higher Education Award that is judged by his fellow editorial board members the Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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