The minister announced in the House of Commons that the Government proposed an inquiry into the state of universities. A commission was set up and a series of questions were promptly sent out to universities and other interested parties to help in its inquiry.
However, the commissioners met with hostility and obstruction. The vice chancellor of Cambridge, for example, replied: "After having ascertained from a high legal authority that the university commission is without the form of law, and is moreover regarded as unconstitutional, and of a kind that was never issued except in the worst times, I feel obliged by a sense of public duty to decline answering any of the questions which I have had the honour of receiving from you a short time ago."
The vice chancellor of Oxford informed the commission that he doubted its legality. To the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, the appointment of the commission was: "An unconstitutional stretch of prerogative, fraught with immediate evil, and still more dangerous as a precedent."
This was in 1850. In a wonderful second-hand bookshop in Wicklow, I found a copy of V. H. H. Green's The Universities, part of a Pelican series on British institutions originally published in 1969. At the time of the Dearing inquiry, it makes fascinating and instructive reading.
The book is a short history of stone, redbrick and plateglass "new" universities. It provides lots of interesting material about the issues which still dominate higher education.
On standards, George Pryme, who went to Trinity College in Cambridge in 1799, for example, commented on how "it would scarcely be believed how very little knowledge was required for a mere degree when I first knew Cambridge".
And on the ability of the universities to agree, Lord Melbourne declared in 1837 that the universities "never reform themselves; everyone knew that - everyone knew that there was too much competition and jealousy, too many different motives constantly in play to prevent the desired effect".
At the same time, there was a furious row about the function of the university. Jowett, the influential master of Balliol, insisted that the function of the university was education rather than scholarship. The chief duty of the tutorial fellows was to teach the undergraduates, not to undertake research.
With the origin of the redbrick universities, we discover that an original version of the Private Finance Initiative was alive and well, and absolutely essential to the establishment of these institutions. But keeping the new universities going was another matter. "All the new universities in the 19th century were crippled by lack of funds so the research was difficult, teaching sometimes inadequate and the provision of civil amenities impossible."
Overall, Green concludes, the history of these new (redbrick) universities, though occasionally redeemed by major advances in learning and impressive achievements of scholarship, was scarred by intrigue and controversy, dogged by lack of money, and circumscribed by a scarcity of students who were sufficiently intelligent and adequately prepared for university education.
Moreover, the new universities were cautious in their experimentation. They did not strike out along very original lines. They borrowed the system of education which their professors had known at Oxford and Cambridge. The new universities therefore inevitably took second place to the older foundations. "Too often the colleges were ill-housed in industrial cities in poor areas; they had the misfortune to be shaped by Victorian aesthetics. Their social life was restricted, and they were for the most part non-residential."
In the middle of the 20th century, the new (plateglass) universities suffered similar birth pangs. The very rapidity of the expansion inevitably meant some lowering of academic standards, both on the part of those who teach and those who learn. "Clearly there is a shortage of first-class scholars, especially in certain departments of learning, and inevitably some of second-class calibre that have been selected for university teaching posts."
There were also serious questions about whether there were enough university students of sufficient intellectual calibre to benefit from the interesting and intellectually demanding courses which the new plateglass universities had devised. As we settle down to answer the Dearing question paper, it is interesting to reflect that many of the questions are not new. It is equally clear that, this time, our answers need to be.
Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.