Although some call it 'nonsense' and a 'political fix', Lord Dearing's landmark report left an enduring legacy in terms of access, quality and, of course, tuition fees.
However much Lord Dearing's sweeping 1997 review of higher education continues to divide opinion, one thing cannot be denied: the report he delivered ten years ago this week fundamentally changed the higher education landscape, and its effects are still felt acutely today.
Firmly establishing the principle that students should pay towards the cost of their higher education, as they benefit personally, the report killed the notion of free education to the benefit of all. It ushered in tuition fees and paved the way for last year's £3,000 top-up fees. Moreover, the report laid the groundwork for the implementation of higher fees, which looks increasingly likely to occur in the not-too-distant future.
For David Blunkett, the Education Secretary at the time Lord Dearing delivered his report, the document could not have come at a more crucial moment. "Dearing was completely driven by the fact that higher education did not raise sufficient resources to prevent a collapse in the system," Mr Blunkett said. "The universities were not crying foul - they were genuinely on the edge and deteriorating to the point where the sector would no longer be world-class."
Lord Dearing - then Sir Ron - Ewas called in by the last Conservative administration in 1996 to sort out the mess with a root-and-branch review. In July 1997, he and his 16-strong committee delivered. Via a boxed set of reports weighing in at 2.2kg and running to more than 2,000 pages, Sir Ron made 93 recommendations.
But two key recommendations were immediately swept aside by the Government. Sir Ron called for a flat-rate £1,000 tuition fee for all undergraduate students, backed by a means-tested maintenance grant to support poor ones. On the very afternoon that the Dearing report was published, the new Labour Government cherry-picked the tuition fee idea but ignored the call for a student grant. Instead of grants, there would be loans for all; but to help poor students, the tuition fee itself would be means-tested, with a third of the poorest students not paying it at all.
Mr Blunkett makes no apology for the haste with which the Government seized the agenda. "We literally had to bite on the bullet of charging fees, and we had to do it very quickly because we knew that if we didn't we would not get it through Parliament."
Baroness Blackstone, formerly Higher Education Minister and now vice chancellor of Greenwich University, said: "The report came out a few days before parliamentary recess. If it had been left hanging over the summer, you could be certain there would have been a huge build-up against it. People would have been allowed to express opposition, and opponents would have had time to regroup. That is why it was right to make a fast decision."
One of the committee members, Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, believes the decision to ignore Sir Ron's advice on fees has since become the Achilles' heel of new Labour's higher education policies. Sir David argued that it gave the middle classes, enjoying subsidised student loans, a "sense of entitlement" and coloured all future debates about how the sector should be funded, by focusing on student support.
Only in 2006 did the sector get something resembling Sir Ron's concept. The £3,000 top-up fee introduced last year was meant to be variable, but has become a de facto flat rate, as almost every university charges the full Pounds 3,000 a year. This was, finally, backed by grants for poor students.
Beyond fees, some are sceptical about the Dearing report's impact. David Robertson, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool John Moores University, said: "What the committee came out with on institutional reform was an unmitigated nonsense from the start. It had no serious impact on the sector, and the rest of its recommendations are just monuments waiting to be knocked down. The one thing the committee was set up to do they eventually got right. But if anyone looked to Dearing for very much else they would be disappointed."
Many disagree. Bill Rammell, the present Higher Education Minister, said: "Dearing stressed the importance of proper funding being key to widening participation. I think the report created a climate in which we are now able to pursue a really aggressive widening participation policy."
Lord Triesman, the Education Minister who was general secretary of the Association of University Teachers in 1997, said Dearing "encouraged institutions to have appropriate regard for the world of employment, which has created much more variety in the sector".
John Randall, who in 1997 headed the Quality Assurance Agency, said that while the report's funding elements were a short-term "political fix", its legacy included developing the idea that "students have a right to know about the standards of programmes and qualifications".
For Baroness Blackstone, the Dearing report underlined the importance of teaching and quality assurance, the regional role of universities and relating higher education to the world of work. firstname.lastname@example.org
LABOUR'S REPLY TO DEARING
Flat rate annual £1,000 student tuition fee, with poor students supported by grants
University expansion, especially at sub-degree level
Tougher criteria for degree-awarding powers
A review of pay and working conditions
Institutions to be able to opt out of the RAE and to apply instead for a lower level of "non-competitive" research funding
Another "Dearing" review in ten years
Means-tested £1,000 annual tuition fee, with students from low-income families exempt. No grants, but means-tested loans
Significant growth in student numbers, with emphasis on foundation degrees
Relaxed standards for degree-awarding powers
Bett review of pay and subsequent introduction of a reformed national pay framework agreement
'We literally had to bite the bullet of charging fees and we had to do it very quickly because we knew that if we didn't we wouldn't get it through Parliament'
David Blunkett Education Secretary, 1997-2001
'If it had been left hanging over the summer... people would have been allowed to express opposition... it was right to make a fast decision'
Baroness Blackstone, vice-chancellor of Greenwich University and former Higher Education Minister, 1997-2001
'Dearing's advice on fees has since become the Achilles' heel of Labour's HE policies'
Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management, Institute of Education
'The report created a climate in which we are now able to pursue a really aggressive widening participation policy'
Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister
'It developed the idea that students have a right to know about the standards of programmes and qualifications'
John Randall, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, 1996-2001
TEN YEARS ON: HUGE CHALLENGES REMAIN
Universities are still facing the key challenges posed by Sir Ron Dearing's landmark review of higher education published ten years ago this week.
That is the conclusion of a conference focusing on the Dearing report's legacy, held at the Institute of Education this week.
According to Sir David Watson, a Dearing committee member and professor of higher education management at the institute, the review failed to stimulate the expected revival of government investment into higher education.
In his book published this week, The Dearing Report: Ten Years On, he points out that the UK's public funding of higher education as a proportion of gross domestic product remains in the bottom third of the league of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
A "substantial minority" of institutions simply use their tuition fee income to "back-fill" their deficits of two years ago, he said.
Baroness Blackstone, the former Higher Education Minister who is now vice chancellor of Greenwich University, paints a similarly gloomy picture for the financial future of the sector.
She said the decision in 2004 to allow students to pay their £3,000 top up fees after they graduate was a mistake, as it is "enormously expensive" for the Government in the short term. It will mean that any decision to lift the £3,000 cap will create a "horrendous" cost to Government. "A better idea would have been to reduce loan entitlement for the well-off," she said.
And one issue raised by Dearing is still being largely ignored, said Claire Callender, professor of social policy at London South Bank University, who was on the Dearing review's research team.
"Dearing suggested that we should move to a position where the decision between full-time and part-time study was financially neutral. We are still a long way from that," she said.
BEFORE AND AFTER
Number of HEIs
Universities' total income
Universities' funding council income
Universities' research grants and contracts income:
Student gender balance