Gentlemen's club in need of reform

July 24, 1998

IT IS one year since the Dearing committee on the future of higher education reported. In assessing what it achieved it is worth recalling why it was set up. In 1995, the Conservative government announced plans for steep per capita cuts in higher education. In response vice-chancellors threatened to impose an enrolment fee to make good the deficit. Government and Labour joined forces to buy them off by setting up an inquiry - to report after the general election. The politicians' aim was to get the issue out of the election and prevent universities acting unilaterally.

Once it was decided on, all kinds of other questions, which had been the subject of inconclusive internal education department review, were stitched into the committee's remit. For the department, which had long resented the ability of the universities to cock a snook at government, the Dearing committee presented an opportunity to seek stronger central control.

In terms of Westminster and Whitehall the Dearing committee has been a resounding success. Their choice of pre-eminent civil servant Ron Dearing as chairman (page 17), has been thoroughly vindicated. Fees have been introduced without having been an election issue. Large sums of money are being saved by passing costs on to students. New powers have been secured for the education minister.

For universities, staff and students, the report has been less good. Universities' autonomy has been weakened by the legislation that followed the report. Staff salaries are capped. Students will have to pay what amounts to a higher education tax but the amount spent per student will continue to fall in real terms.

The mistake the universities (or rather the vice-chancellors) made was to concentrate on Dearing rather than on the likely-to-be-elected Labour Party. They were determined to convince the committee there was a funding crisis. This they did - up to a point. The committee concluded the speed of per capita cuts planned by the Conservatives was too severe, more money should be provided upfront so savings could be spread over a longer period.

For this modest success, a high price was paid. The vice-chancellors agreed to go along with fees, "efficiency gains" and such control mechanisms as standards, inspections, qualifications and training. The notion of a compact was born, but not between the government and the universities, rather between the committee and the universities. Unfortunately the committee had no power to deliver the government's side of the supposed bargain.

So what happens now? Public direct funding is fixed for three years. Manoeuvring over how money is distributed will be a zero sum game. Extra money will have to come, as in the past 20 years, from short-course, part-time and overseas students, from consultancy and applied research and donations. Regional development may help. In both the United States and Europe universities draw both on national and regional governments.

The control regime is not fixed. Powers exist to make compliance with government requirements a condition of funding. It may tighten with universities prevented from breaking for freedom by varying their charges. If vice-chancellors are tempted in their disappointment to renege on their ide of the "compact", they should forget it. What is not done voluntarily can be imposed.

For employers and society more broadly, it is too soon to judge whether Dearing will be seen as a success. If new powers are crassly applied, a good university system will be damaged. Preventing this will be a tough assignment. It may be made harder if the government is indeed considering merging the funding councils. The resulting agency would be colossally powerful. It would inevitably be pulled towards the vocationally relevant end of the higher education enterprise. Presumably research would be removed from its remit, hence persistent rumours about a review of the dual-support system.

Who will undertake the detailed work and hard negotiations? The Dearing episode has damaged the credibility of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. It was unwilling to frighten the government into action by charging. It has not persuaded government into generosity by being helpful. The CVCP should now be reformed. A gentlemen's club (with a few lady members) is not a suitable organisation to undertake the work needed. Higher education needs a more effective voice that mobilises all the creative talent available - and it needs it soon.

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