Cliched Dearing gets a D for disappointment

August 22, 1997

Concerns are voiced on the future of clinical research, the impact of fees and the need to encourage more students into independent higher education

THE DEARING committee was a once-in-a-generation opportunity. It was the first time since Robbins in the 1960s that a body had been asked to look at the purpose, state, structure, size and funding of higher education. Expectations were, therefore, high - particularly since, although set up by a Conservative government, the committee had the support of the then Labour opposition, now the Government.

Given the momentous changes - social, technological, business and political - since the 1960s, it was not unreasonable to suppose that the analysis and recommendations would be radical and challenging. What a disappointment Dearing has been!

Far from producing a new definition of the proper role of higher education in a future competitive, trading society, we are treated to a procession of cliches and assertions ("a new compact", "active partnerships", "pursuit of quality" etc) that provide no answers to the real and difficult questions facing education.

There is an underlying assumption in the summary report that maximum participation in higher education will, of itself, contribute to the wellbeing of students and society alike. There seems to be an acceptance that a university degree is something that not only one third, but nearly one half of the population, can achieve.

This is not surprising, carrying as it does significant implications for the quality of degree qualifications, supply (and, therefore, price or value) of graduates, and relationship with other qualifications.

Surely the great danger of the era of "one in two of the population as graduates" is that the degree will be devalued and undermined, leading either to a diminution in the rewards for graduates, or a necessity for the truly able and ambitious minority routinely to seek postgraduate qualifications.

Eric Forth is MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and was minister for education and employment in the last government.

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