Blunkett's time to make up his mind

July 18, 1997

Next week the report of the committee of inquiry into higher education will be published. Thanks to the working habits of the chairman, Sir Ron Dearing, the ground has been well prepared. Interest groups have been called in for briefing on the parts of the report with which they are concerned directly - student support, quality assurance, funding, research, regional organisation etc.

As a result much is known about what the report may recommend and few interest groups will be taken by surprise. What is not known is the big picture - or indeed whether there is a big picture. Sir Ron is said to have been greatly offended by remarks to the effect that the report is "a bit of a dog's dinner", claiming that it presents a coherent vision. Whether that is so, and, if it is, whether that vision strikes a public chord and will be accepted by the Government are the big questions for next week.

It is arguable that the Dearing committee was not really in the vision business. It was set up early in 1996 to fix an immediate problem: universities were short of money and were threatening to impose charges. Politicians, wanting to avoid being bounced into commitments they might regret later, colluded to postpone decisions until this summer.

It may not be realistic to think any longer in terms of planning for a "system" of higher education. Thirty years ago the Robbins committee tried to do just that when the university system was small and relatively homogeneous - so many students, so many institutions of such and such a size, much vocational education left outside. Things have turned out very differently. We now enrol a third of the relevant age group in institutions and on courses more diverse than was ever imagined in 1963. The "system" is divided regionally and shows further signs of splintering. Higher education is being set up outside as in the British Aerospace University. Teacher training seems likely to migrate to new "partnerships" of schools, local authorities and universities. An increasing amount of research is being done in spin-off companies and think tanks.

Against this background it looks as if the vice chancellors have managed to persuade the Dearing committee to buy their vision of a traditionally managed "system" steered by centrally distributed funding, biased towards basic research and with quality assurance largely under their control. If the recommendations are accepted, there would be more money and not much more control. Sir Gareth Roberts, outgoing chairman of the committee of vice chancellors, has good reason to be satisfied (page 6). Not so students.

Whether such a "system" can in reality be maintained against the irrepressible demands of students and employers is a question for the long term. Not surprisingly, the committee fancies revisiting the issues in five to ten years. Whether the politicians will accept Sir Ron's (and the vice chancellors') solutions is, however, the question for the few weeks between now and the publication of the promised white paper in October.

Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett said when he opened Birkbeck College's elegant new teaching building this week that he knows he now has to make some of the most difficult decisions of his career. Mr Blunkett does not like fees. But he does need money for other things. Will he accept the committee's recommendations - and if he does will he let the "system" keep the money?

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