Education secretary Estelle Morris this week gave welcome attention to higher education in two speeches: a general one on Monday setting out the challenge as she sees it - wider participation, world-class research, local engagement, good teaching and better management - and the other, yesterday, on the crucial question of pay.
There was a certain amount of vulgar abuse of the familiar kind: universities seen as ivory towers; middle-class capture; too little effort to reach out. There was the breathtaking complaint that "we are still stuck with the idea that universities really ought to look the same and do the same sorts of things", as if this was nothing to do with the government. But beneath an understandable attempt to deflect blame from her immediate predecessors, Ms Morris has revealed the extent to which she is changing the direction of government policy on higher education. "A rich complexity of differing missions" for "proud, autonomous institutions" is her preferred picture of how higher education should develop, though "a defensible structure of accountability" is still going to be required.
Her approach suggests a much more open regime. In the next few weeks, as she told the select committee, the "experience of higher education" to be offered to 50 per cent of the appropriate age group will be further defined. It is unlikely to be interpreted as half the population gaining degrees, a target that would imply an unacceptable reduction in degree standards. It is more likely to embrace a wide range of shorter courses, full and part-time, some of them coupled with employment. This definition will be at the base of the strategic review that, though only announced this week, has apparently, like the cross-departmental review of student support, been going on since the summer.
The document underpinning this review is the English funding council's consultative document, Supply and Demand in Higher Education (page 4). This careful analysis provides the basis for current concern with staying-on rates after 16. It should have as much influence on the review of AS and A levels due to report by the end of the year as on planning for higher education itself. It also shows the extent to which thinking on higher education has changed since the election. It acknowledges that two-year qualifications are unpopular and that vocational routes into higher education and higher education offered in further education colleges have done little to raise participation. It does not endorse the view taken by previous ministers that changes in student support have had no impact on enrolment.
The council's paper includes a long discussion of how best it can use its power to support those institutions that do most to open up access without at the same time rationing places in the most popular institutions and thereby limiting students' choice. What it does not do - and who can blame it since the answer might threaten the council's whole rationale - is ask the fundamental question, that will be raised by the incoming chairman of the Standing Conference of Principals, John Cater, at next week's conference in York: whether diversity can or should be planned and managed?
What the government will need to consider in the reviews now under way is how bold it is prepared to be. Is it prepared to instruct the council to continue to develop the notion that funding should follow the student despite the institutional difficulties this can cause? And is it prepared to improve financial support substantially for students from poorer backgrounds so they can afford to participate even if this means a substantial hike in tuition fees, or a cut in loans or loan interest subsidies, for those who can afford to pay? Ms Morris's attack on middle-class domination of higher education suggests that she at least would not be averse to the rich carrying more of the burden. But the rearguard action will be fierce.