Republican administrations have come a long way since Ronald Reagan threatened to shut down the US Department of Education. Now, not only is the federal Government content to intervene in schools, but this week it announced a full-scale review of higher education. A commission chaired by a Texan businessman and including the chief executive of the Kaplan private education company may be a far cry from the Dearing review, but its brief covers many of the same issues. Significantly, there is an emphasis on widening participation that will take the group into delicate areas of race that have dominated Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
The Dearing review had a particular agenda, relating to tuition fees, which gave it a political raison d'être . The more open-ended nature of the Americans' so-called national dialogue represents a greater risk for the Bush Administration, although there is no commitment to act on its recommendations. But the commission's conclusions will also be of interest on this side of the Atlantic, if only as a source of evidence on the gap between US universities and their European rivals. With Ruth Kelly already sounding warning notes about next summer's spending review, the exercise could not be more timely.