Dearing snubbed by policy drafters

August 1, 1997

Further education will take priority over Sir Ron Dearing's higher education proposals in a November "lifelong learning" white paper, senior Government advisors have said.

Leaders of the National Advisory Group on the white paper are unimpressed with Dearing's 14-month examination of higher education. Vice chair Alan Tuckett said that "as a step towards a coherent system of lifelong learning" the Dearing report was "a disappointment".

Bob Fryer, chair of the group, has outlined a vision for the white paper in which higher education is no longer a higher priority than FE. This is at odds with Dearing who largely endorses the status quo in higher education, said Professor Fryer, principal of the Northern College in Barnsley.

"We couldn't carry on with the current situation - full-time students, all in big institutions, studying for three years. There is a totally different conception of how it will work in the future. It is a radical shift and it will not work on old models."

An announcement this week of the working group's four subcommittees, or "task groups", clearly show where the priorities lie. They are to focus on workplace learning; family and community/learning for citizenship; technology for learning; and financing and funding. The funding task group will be convened by Mr Tuckett, one of Dearing's most vociferous critics.

He said this week: "Much of its thinking remains rooted in the idea that real higher education is what happens to people in late adolescence. In the short term its funding recommendations do not tackle the most significant inequity, that between students in further and higher education."

Sir Ron Dearing told students at a conference this week that he believed the needs of young people were more pressing than those of mature students.

Spelling out his agenda for the white paper, Professor Fryer said workplace learning was "the largest challenge" and should eventually be seen as being "just as normal in the working world as health and safety issues". Providing key skills to the unemployed would also be paramount.

Professor Fryer warned: "There will be a culture shift and it is going to be very demanding on university governance. But it will not come overnight and it will not be with brutality. We hope there will be a shared sense of purpose."

The legislative programme for implementing Dearing is still not clear. The Department for Education and Employment said that the Government was working to include most of Sir Ron's major recommendations, but how much would depend upon the consultation process, to be completed in early October. Learning accounts are likely to be included, in spite of their low profile in the Dearing report.

The DFEE has said that tuition fees could be introduced without legislation, and they will be brought in from October next year, rather than being phased in. Loans will be phased in as maintenance grants are phased out. The exact balance of initial loan and grant is under consideration.

There is still no guarantee that all of the money raised through fees and loans will be ploughed back into higher and further education. The DFEE said that the amount of money available would depend on the outcome of the review of Government expenditure which is due to be completed in the autumn. One senior Labour MP said that education ministers were still arguing with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, on the matter.

In the absence of any guarantees some institutions may introduce top-up fees. The Government admits it has no power to stop institutions charging additional fees. A DFEE spokeswoman said that the Government could legislate to award itself such powers if it thought them necessary.

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