Dearing 'cherry picking' warning

October 17, 1997

A SENIOR member of the former Dearing committee has warned the government against "cherry picking" parts of the higher education report that was designed to stand as an integrated whole.

David Watson, who sat on the full committee and also on three main sub-committees, this week told the annual conference of the Standing Conference of Principals that there was a danger that the government would pick the Dearing recommendations it wants to implement and so undermine the whole report.

Professor Watson, director of Brighton University, said: "The members of the committee have all gone their separate ways, so who is going to champion the report in its entirety?

"It is an holistic report but it is now susceptible to cherry picking."

The government has already rejected Dearing's preferred funding option raising fears within the sector. This would have preserved maintenance grants alongside a flat-rate Pounds 1,000 tuition fee, but the government is planning to abolish state maintenance subsidies and means-test tuition contributions.

"What the government plans to do bears virtually no relationship to the variables set out in our table of funding options," he said.

"The courage of the government's initial decision on funding was followed by uncertainty."

Professor Watson warned of dangers in the government's proposals, including the fact that students from poorer families will have to borrow more than those from wealthy backgrounds.

He said there was no guarantee that funds from fees money would be earmarked for higher education. Delegates to the conference in Brighton echoed Professor Watson's concerns.

John Rae, principal of Plymouth's College of St Mark and St John, sat on Dearing's teaching, quality and standards sub-committee. He said: "We will wait and see what's in the lifelong learning white paper but it is more than likely that the coherence which we regard as important may be lost."

But Professor Watson said that while there were grounds for concern, it was important that the higher and further education sectors remained "very positive" about the government's commitments to post-16 education. He played down fears that further education could be expanded at the expense of universities.

Professor Watson defended Dearing's rejection of multiple franchising where more than one university validate courses for a further or higher education college.

"We found evidence of colleges shopping around to gain validation by attrition," he said. "If their local institution is not willing then they move on to the next and so on."

The former Dearing committee will meet again in February to discuss progress in the months after the report's publication.

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