Research published this week claims that neither the 1992 reform that turned the polytechnics into universities, nor the Dearing report five years later, really changed the face of English higher education. According to the study, the same divisions live on through entrenched funding disparities. It will be surprising if experts look back on next month's government proposals and reach the same conclusion in a decade's time. The debate over tuition fees and student support naturally captures headlines, but ministers' insistence on greater institutional diversity will also have lasting consequences. Mergers and partnerships may bring about more meaningful reorganisation than anything achieved in the 1990s.
There has already been a flurry of activity. Imperial College and University College London balked at total integration, but the Manchester merger is going ahead. More significantly for the future shape of the education system, so is the university-college merger in Bradford. Thames Valley University and Reading College should follow. After countless false dawns, the era of the "multiversity" may be upon us.
When polytechnics were still controlled by local authorities, their supporters would talk of the "seamless robe" of education, where students transferred automatically from one course to the next. In practice, it seldom existed. But if widening participation is to occur, something similar will be needed, and institutional mergers may be the best way of providing it. They may also provide the financial security that will be the real driving force. Others may choose the kind of collaboration that has seen Kent and Greenwich universities working with Mid-Kent College on a single campus in Medway.
Margaret Hodge called for closer links between further and higher education this week. But she must ensure that needless regulation does not stand in the way. At present, institutions must satisfy various criteria, for example on the proportion of higher education students in the merger partners, to qualify for extra support. There is no room for such red tape if the new system is to be truly flexible.