Was it worth it, Ron?

July 24, 1998

One year after Ron Dearing published his report on the future of higher education, Alan Thomson asks him if he accepts the charge that its 1,700 pages have turned out to be a costly white elephant

It is exactly a year since Ron Dearing's committee published its report on higher education - billed before the event as the most radical review of British universities since the Robbins report of 1963.

The man behind it is sitting in a meeting room at the London Institute reflecting on the past 12 months. Lord Dearing - he was given a peerage earlier this year - looks relaxed although a little bloodless and fragile. A recurrent medical problem has dogged him into retirement. So, the 1,700-page higher education report will stand as his last public achievement. How does he feel now about the list of recommendations published last July on his 67th birthday, designed, above all else, to find a way of directing large amounts of money towards Britain's cash-strapped universities? Does he accept criticisms that the report turned out to be a costly white elephant - a mish-mash of policy proposals, most of which have been ignored by the government?

Predictably, he does not. Lord Dearing stands by his report, although there is a hint that he believes its "immensely broad" nature may have diminished its impact. "In terms of the objectives of the report we did get a lot through. I don't have a lot of regrets about it," he says.

Commissioned by John Major's Conservative government, although it received all-party backing, the Dearing report was inspired by the Tories' belated realisation that a funding crisis was looming in universities. Dearing, knighted under the Thatcher administration in 1984, calculated that universities required almost Pounds 1 billion extra between 1998 and 2000.

His solution was to charge all students Pounds 1,000 a year for their tuition regardless of family income. He recommended that students should be able to take out loans to cover these fees and the costs of day-to-day living, rent, food etc. And, although the committee began its deliberations with a view to scrapping the grants the state pays students to cover living expenses it decided that this would deter the poorest from entering university. Grants should therefore remain.

The government, however, had other ideas and wasted no time in wrecking Dearing's funding package. On the very day the report was published Labour ministers announced that tuition fees would be introduced but they would be means tested and that the grant would be scrapped. Whatever else the Dearing report had to say it would remain for ever overshadowed by the scuppering of its main funding recommendation on day one. "It was a disappointment," he confesses. "We all (on the committee) like to feel we got it right. I think ours was the best solution. What we have now is less good."

But, characteristically, Lord Dearing, the consummate civil servant, changes tone quickly - preferring to focus on what he feels the report did achieve. "We broke the funding mould by managing to get tuition fees accepted. We got money for access, a better deal for part-timers, lone parents and also a commitment to monitor the social composition of student entry." He pauses, then reels off a list of recommendations made in his earlier report on 16 to 19 education that have also been adopted by the government, some of which emphasise his long-held ambition to "lift the standing of applied education".

Lord Dearing's drive to undermine Britain's snobbish division between vocational and academic learning is an ambition born of personal experience. In 1941 a Luftwaffe bomb killed Ernest Dearing and changed the course of his son's life for ever. Lord Dearing still bears the emotional scars. "I suspect that bomb was the major influence in my life," he says. "It disturbed what would have been a normal childhood: a secure, ordinary, steady life of modest expectations. It may be that if my father hadn't been killed I wouldn't have felt so strongly motivated to succeed."

Ronald applied for and passed the entry exam to Doncaster Grammar School. He excelled at sport, but, initially, not at learning. He recalls one school report that said he was a likeable lad though below average. It stung him into action. "Something just switched inside. I moved from something like 23rd in the class to first within a term. I was top in all subjects except art. When I make speeches to schools now I say there are two important words: 'I can' or, if you like, four: 'I can' and 'I will'. What people achieve is very much a function of what they think they can achieve. Half of life is a confidence trick."

It was a pivotal point in his life. At 16 he left school and joined the civil service. "It was in my mind that there was no other option than to leave school at 16. University and the professions were totally outside my family's horizon of expectations."

In order to climb the civil service ladder he had to push himself through A levels, a degree at University College Hull and a succession of civil service open exams. He recalls the slight sense of inferiority he had hauling himself towards the administrative grade exam: "Nearly all of the candidates were Oxbridge and had actually been taught by the authors of books I held in the greatest esteem."

There followed a succession of jobs in the Ministry of Power and the Treasury. But then came a disaster that prompted awkward questions about the extent to which a public servant should and could detach himself from the government he served. In 1966 a coal waste tip collapsed onto Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, South Wales. Half the pupils, 116 in all, were killed along with 28 adults. The nation looked for someone to blame, and many pointed the finger at the National Coal Board, which ostensibly was responsible for the tip's safety.

Dearing, who had been promoted to assistant secretary in the Ministry of Power, found himself advising the then Labour government on whether, in the light of a tribunal finding that the NCB was to blame for the disaster, its chairman, Lord Robens, should resign.

On the strength of the advice from Dearing Lord Robens remained in post. Lord Dearing has been criticised since for this. Iain McLean, professor of politics at Oxford University, has studied papers from the period. "The civil service at the time seems to have seen it as its job to protect the industry of the department it worked for I without regard to other principles, such as moral sensitivity," says McLean.

But Lord Dearing defends his role. He argues that his job was not to avenge the sense of national outrage by scapegoating a man who had been successful in post. It is a line that reveals Lord Dearing's understanding of his role as a civil servant. "A civil servant has to be loyal to his or her own secretary of state. One is not paid to agree or disagree. You are paid to bring your professional skills to bear on the policies.

"In all the years I had as a civil servant I never even once voted in a parliamentary election because I felt I owed such loyalty. How could I look a minister in the eye having just voted against his party. In serving governments of different political complexions, I turned my coat," he admits.

As chairman of the Post Office in the 1980s Dearing took an equally hard line. He was hired, during the Thatcher administration, to break the back of the Post Office unions and to reform its ossified collectivist corporate culture. "I spent seven and a half years doing something I didn't want to do and that was fighting the unions. It was not my style. I hated that. It was a very tough job especially as the government, which was ostensibly hands off, in fact had a lot of hands on."

He quit the Post Office in 1987 when he was 57. Following stints at the Universities Funding Council and later the Higher Education Funding Council he went on to chair the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority from 1993 to 1996 where he helped to reform the national curriculum and to introduce the highly controversial assessment tests for school children. Dearing was dubbed Mr Fixit after ending the teachers' boycotts of the compulsory tests, though he recalls feeling like a "stranger walking through a minefield".

High-ranking British civil servants make easy targets when exposed to the glare of publicity. After all, they have been responsible for the perfection and implementation of some of the most inequitable, morally dubious and oppressive policies ever conceived by British politicians. Yet to blame the civil service for anything other than outright mistakes is to fundamentally misunderstand its role, according to Lord Dearing. "Essentially, I have a very simple view about democracy: it is a pretty inefficient beast but thank God we have got it. I helped to make it more efficient. I helped to sell the democratic process."

If he has spent his career working to implement the mandate of politicians, Labour ministers have not whole-heartedly returned the favour - at least, not on the Dearing report. Its main plank was its bid to get more money for the universities. Dearing envisaged that the tuition charge on students would be retained by universities as extra cash. The truth, rammed home by last week's comprehensive spending review, is that the Pounds 280 million extra found for universities in 1999-2000 will still mean that they will have to cut costs by 1 per cent, or Pounds 100 million across the sector.

As a result Lord Dearing cannot bring himself to issue a ringing endorsement of the CSR settlement for 1999-2000. He believes that the government has moved closer to plugging the Pounds 565 million shortfall for 1999-2000 identified by his committee but he is still anxious to know what is in store for universities beyond the millennium. Only if more money is forthcoming will the bulk of his recommendations see the light of day. "The whole hand has not been shown," he warns.

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