Thunder stolen by lightning response

July 25, 1997

The day began with Sir Ron Dearing posing in a haze of flash photography behind a pile of stout, green, multi-volumed reports.

By early evening he had been upstaged. The real star was far younger and a great deal slimmer - a 16-page pamphlet in maroon and blue marked DFEE.

It slipped on the scene at about 4pm, just as vice chancellors, students and other "stakeholders" arrived at London's Intercontinental Hotel to hear Sir Ron's presentation.

The pamphlet, produced by the Government in a matter of weeks, proved better suited to a quick flick through than the committee's weighty year-long analysis.

What is more, many of these stakeholders had been keenly watching David Blunkett's Commons statement for most of the afternoon.

So in spite of Sir Ron's oeuvre suffering some concerted leaking in the last few weeks, many vice chancellors had had little time to take on board any of his suggestions before the main ones had effectively been overruled.

"Why did the Government have to announce its reaction today?" wailed Peter Toyne, vice chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. "Couldn't they have waited to allow a bit more time for consultation?" Evidently not. Now that the refrain "waiting for Dearing", which has rung through higher education circles for the past few months, has ceased, haste has suddenly become the order of the day.

It appears the crisis in higher education funding could sorely spare the year it was put on hold to keep the subject off election agendas.

That was why, Sir Ron insisted, he was happy for the Government to snatch some of his limelight this week. "The Government got our report in draft three weeks ago and I kept saying that if they wanted to make a significant decision on funding it meant legislation and they had to take an early decision," he said. "I pressed them for an early decision."

Derek Roberts, vice chancellor of University College London, agreed things had to get moving. "While going along entirely with all the objectives in the report, the fact remains that unless we do something about the funding we won't be in business in the long term," he said. "What isn't apparent to me is whether, even in the context of all the options provided, anything is going to happen before my retirement.

"We have a two- or three-year problem with funding. We cannot wait until 2001."

Vernon VandeLinde, vice chancellor of the University of Bath, said: "If the cuts continue for the next few years we will be in a situation where it will be more expensive to rebuild higher education than to maintain it." Professor VandeLinde described the report as "very thoughtful" and the clarification on standards as "especially useful".

Sir Ron stressed that his report was not set up because higher education had been suffering any crisis in confidence. But it had long been suffering a crisis in funding said Ronald Cooke, vice-chancellor of the University of York.

"That crisis hasn't got better," he said. "It's got worse. He has made proposals to solve it but there is an immediate need for solutions to overcome the short-term problems because if we don't do that it creates bigger, long-term problems."

According to Robert Freedman, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Kent, "the test will be how quickly this will dig universities out of looming crisis".

"There is only one way the money will come and that is by the Government making a response in its autumn review," said Sir Ron.

In spite of the Department for Education and Employment's swift announcement on funding, vice chancellors remained unclear about precisely what this response would mean.

It appeared the Government option would produce more than Sir Ron's. But many were gloomy about whether this would mean more for institutions.

Bob Boucher, vice chancellor of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, said: "What the Government has given us in the statement is how much parents and students will contribute in the future. They haven't said whether that's going to give us more money or less."

On the whole, vice chancellors were more inclined to support Sir Ron, with much praise for his report as they gently began to probe its detail.

"I think Dearing has got just about everything right and it's well-balanced and constructive," enthused Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, who was also feeling magnanimous towards Mr Blunkett.

"I think Mr Blunkett has received the report on a fair wind," he said. "Dearing is the definite future."

But there were indications that, as the report's words are dissected, there may be more dissension in the ranks.

There were mutterings from old universities about the Government rejection of top-up fees. And there were mutterings from new universities about the support of expansion through sub-degree programmes.

John Stoddart, vice chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University said: "I'm personally not sure that two-year diplomas are going to be all that attractive to students who have to pay fees, unless there is a commitment by industry to give them further professional development."

The Open University complained the report offered no improvement in the lot of part-time students, while postgraduates and nurses complained they had been forgotten altogether.

As all stakeholders agreed, as they desperately skimmed their 6kg-worth of Dearing and gramme or two of Government response for the relevant bits, the devil will be in the detail.

One hopes higher education stakeholders have been able to take a breather in the "waiting for Dearing phase". It looks as if, in the post-Dearing age, things are going to move fast.

Laurie Taylor is on page 9

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