Staff at the University of Wolverhampton are going off sick with stress. Staff in further education are feeling under-appreciated. Chelsea Clinton is homesick. It is November. But this is not just seasonal gloom. There is a sense of drift. The post-Dearing model for higher education is coming unravelled without, as yet, any clear replacement. The results of the research assessment exercise, so eagerly worked for, are awaited in the knowledge that better performance may not be rewarded. The quality assurance regime is back in dry dock. Students' debts are rising while their job prospects falter. There is no news yet to suggest the Treasury is willing to invest new money in post-compulsory as well as in school education. It is not too surprising if people feel under-appreciated, bullied and dumped on.
It is to be hoped that this is the dark before dawn. In private, ministers are reviewing higher and further education in general and student support in particular. These consultations could produce a framework for post-compulsory education with more flexibility and less bureaucracy than the flawed Dearing/Blunkett model: arrangements that, for example, remove unhelpful distinctions and barriers between further and higher education; that provide more equitable funding for institutions; and that counteract disincentives to study for poorer students at all post-compulsory levels. It is not all a matter for ministerial decisions. The proposed merger of Bradford College and Bradford University was locally initiated. It is, however, being actively assisted by the Higher Education Funding Council as its new chief executive sets about his own reform agenda: an agenda that can safely be assumed to have government approval since it fits neatly with ministerial exhortations for wider participation and local engagement.
The government does not have to call all the shots. But what it should do is produce a better way of supporting students and a framework for further and higher education that makes greater institutional differentiation more attractive financially. It will not be possible to lighten the gloom and achieve their political objectives without more money. Where that money comes from is the most important decision that has to be made.