Dearing must not be a smokescreen

March 21, 1997

Less than a week after the May Day general election was announced, the first instances are already being reported of politicians citing the Dearing inquiry as the reason why it is terribly difficult to say anything definitive about higher education.

But remarks by Adam Ingram, Labour's science spokesman (page 1), leave no doubt that Sir Ron will not be used as a machine for delay once he has reported. Instead, Labour and Tory politicians alike think that his report will contain ideas on funding and other problems that they will be keen to adopt.

During the next six weeks, The THES will take a close look at election issues including money, academic quality and standards, academic election punditry as well as university seats and candidates.

There might appear to be all-party agreement on the need for fees and other new means of getting money into higher education. But this does not mean that there is no scope for extracting promises from political parties that might make life a little easier. For one thing, universities do not live by bread alone. People who work in them ought to make it clear that both parties should not be allowed to get away with squeezing the resources for universities while increasing the control they exert over them. Perhaps a small prize could be awarded to the first education spokesperson spontaneously calling for increased academic freedom.

Since the foundation of the University Grants Committee, universities have been existing at the frontier of public and private enterprise, as private bodies which are financially inseparable from the state. Although some Conservatives are calling for them to be privatised, they have in fact never been nationalised. Despite this, they have longer experience than the railways, the water companies or British Telecom at being private but regulated bodies which have to pay close attention to the public interest.

At a time when politicians of all parties are agreeing with the Conservatives that these organisations function better with a high degree of independence, provided they meet high standards and do not act too outrageously in areas like executive pay, it is an anomaly for them to think universities can be made to meet the national interest by having course-by-course and department-by-department approval of their work plus central direction of the directions they wish to take in research.

Since it is likely that John Prescott (page 22) will be the next deputy prime minister, we can take some comfort from the fact that he was the first senior Labour figure to acknowledge the possible role of private capital in the railway system, but to propose that it be introduced in a way that allowed the railways to remain a public resource.

By contrast Michael Heseltine's office has not hesitated to press for short-term semi-commercial pressure to be applied even in bodies which are funded wholly by the taxpayer, for example in public-sector laboratories. The cynics may say that this is set to be the dullest election in living memory, but even the planning blight caused by Dearing has not removed real issues of finance and control for higher education from the political agenda.

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