How much has the landscape changed?

July 24, 1998

A year after Dearing's landmark report, THES reporters gauge the progress made, while committee members and other academics give their verdicts

Lord Dearing did as he was asked and thought "the unthinkable" in his landmark 1,700-page report Higher Education in the Learning Society a year ago.

Since then, many of the report's suggestions have been rejected or set aside as the government presses ahead on proposals that fit best with its plans for a learning society. Others have been acted upon.

Predictably, the biggest battles have been fought over the government's action on the committee's recommendations for funding.

It is a matter of debate how close the government and the sector have come to realising the committee's "big idea" in this section - forging a new "compact" between the state, institutions, students and employers and the private sector.

Certainly the principle that students should contribute has been well established. The role of employers is less clear, although an increasing number of funding initiatives involve public/private partnerships.

The sector will have to wait until the chancellor's autumn statement to discover the full extent to which the government intends to fulfil its part of the bargain.

In the meantime, we offer a comparison between some of Dearing's key recommendations and the action taken on these so far.

FUNDING

Recommendations

* Government spending on higher education should, in long term, match rise in gross domestic product

* Have students contribute to costs, with annual fees of about 25 per cent of average tuition costs, roughly Pounds 1,000 a year

* Keep means-tested maintenance grants to help poorest students

* More aid for part-time and disabled students. Double access funds

* Switch student loans to resource-based accounting

* Limit efficiency gains over next two years to 1 per cent a year (at an estimated cost of Pounds 370 million)

* Create low-interest loan plan to fund new buildings and equipment

* Lift full-time participation rate to 45 per cent (at cost of up to Pounds 2.1 billion extra a year)

* Remission of fees for part-time students in receipt of a Job Seekers Allowance or on family benefits.

Progress so far

* Government earmarked an "extra" Pounds 165 million for this year and promised Pounds 280 million more for next. But actual gain is much lower, when inflation and projected extra students are taken into account

* Fees introduced, but maintenance grants abolished

* Loans shifted to resource-based accounting

* Next year's efficiency gains kept to 1 per cent target

* Fees waived for anyone who becomes unemployed while studying part-time and in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance

* Low-interest loan for buildings and equipment rejected, but some of next year's extra money will be to boost infrastructure funding.

SCIENCE AND RESEARCH

Recommendations

* An Arts and Humanities Research Council.

* Research councils meet their full indirect costs.

* Amend research assessment exercise to let departments opt out.

* Set up an industrial partnership development fund.

* Pounds 500 million loan fund for university research equipment, backed by public and private sponsors.

* Independent panel to oversee research policy and funding.

* Study to evaluate interdisciplinary research funding.

Progress so far

* Arts and Humanities Research Board created to fund research projects at institutes in England and Northern Ireland.

* Research councils will get Pounds 400 million extra over next three years but no indication that this can be used to meet full indirect costs.

* Departments can opt out of RAE.

* Spending review considered industrial partnership fund but no new fund announced.

* Loan fund abandoned, but government and Wellcome Trust provide Pounds 300 million each in direct grants over three years for university research infrastructure.

* Government not convinced of need for new panel on research policy and funding.

* Study into interdisciplinary research to report in November.

STAFFING

Recommendations

* Independent review committee to report by April 1998 on framework for pay and service conditions

* All institutions to review staff development policies in following year to ensure they address changing staff roles

* Review concordat among higher education stakeholders to improve terms for contract research staff

* Institutions to look at employment of women, ethnic minorities and disabled and to publish progress on equal opportunities

* Long-term harmonisation of pension arrangements for staff in old and new universities, with new entrants directed to the Universities' Superannuation Scheme.

Progress so far

* Independent review committee set up to consider framework for pay and conditions. Report due before the end of the year

* Individual institutions reviewing staff development. Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency issued guidance

* Concordat revised. New guidelines available by October

* Commission on University Career Opportunity published guidance on equality shortly before Dearing reported. Results of a survey based on this will be published in autumn. Some institutions have already asked department heads to submit action plans on equality; others have set up training programmes for recruitment staff

* Department for Education and Employment working with Universities and Colleges Employers Association to find ways of extending Universities' Superannuation Scheme to cover staff in new universities and FE colleges.

Teaching

Recommendations

* Institute of Learning and Teaching to be set up to raise the standard of university teaching

* All institutions to review, over medium term, programmes to secure balance of breadth and depth

* Video outstanding lectures

* Strong teaching departments could opt out of RAE and receive Pounds 500 to support teaching.

Progress so far

* ILT expected to begin operations in autumn. Planning group has set up national accreditation framework so institutions can offer lecturers standardised training. Training and subsequent membership of the institute wil not be compulsory

* Government endorsed request to review programmes of study to take account of changing needs of students and employers and to consider breadth and depth

* Scepticism about videoing outstanding lectures

* Pounds 500 for strong teaching departments opting out of RAE rejected.

QUALITY AND STANDARDS

Recommendations

* New national qualifications framework for higher education

* Wide role for Quality Assurance Agency, including responsibility for qualifications framework, quality assurance, standards and compulsory code of practice

* Institutions should abide by QAA's code of practice as condition of funding

* QAA to draft standards "benchmarks", for what is expected in each subject area, and "threshold standards", for minimum levels of expected attainment at degree level

* QAA to set up pool of registered external examiners

* QAA to review arrangements for degree-awarding powers

* Boards of QAA, representative bodies and funding councils to have a student and an international member

* QAA to specify criteria for franchising arrangements, ruling out serial franchising, and keeping franchisees to one HE partner.

Progress so far

* QAA produced consultation paper with plans for new quality regime. No agreement yet

* QAA set up working group to develop proposed qualifications scheme

* Keeping to binding quality code as condition of funding rejected

* QAA reviewing criteria for degree-awarding powers

* QAA drawing up franchising criteria.

GOVERNANCE

Recommendations

* Government and representative bodies should, within three years, establish that the identity of every institution's governing body is undisputed. Ensure that the council is ultimate decision-making body

* Individuals should not serve as members of governing body for more than two terms, unless they hold office. Individuals should not chair a governing body for more than two terms of office

* Each governing body should include student and staff representatives and a majority of lay members

* No governing body should exceed 25 members

* Each governing body should review its effectiveness at least every five years. Funding bodies should require published annual reports of the outcomes of reviews

* Institutions should review, over the next two years, arrangements for handling students' complaints.

Progress so far

* Government accepted the Committee of University Chairmen's offer to advise institutions on the identity of governing bodies

* Government backed in principle proposals to limit governing body chairmen and members to two terms of office, but it sees a case for allowing more exceptions than Dearing did

* Government accepted suggestion on staff and student representatives

* Government welcomed proposals to review and publish institutions' performance against benchmarks as a condition of funding

* Government accepted recommendation to review procedures for handling student complaints. The CVCP and CUC have acted.

FURTHER EDUCATION

Recommendations

* Priority in growth in sub-degree provision to go to further education colleges

* Higher education provision in FE colleges to be funded directly

* No growth in degree-level qualifications offered by FE colleges

* More collaboration, especially across the higher/further education boundary.

Progress so far

* Government accepted growth in sub-degree provision "mainly" in further education colleges

* Government agreed that in England and Wales funding of all provision defined as higher education - including higher education in FE colleges - to be responsibility of respective funding councils. In England, discussions with funding councils are under way, with view to implementation in 1999-2000

* Government accepted "generally" no significant growth in degree-level qualifications offered by further education colleges

* Government welcomed proposals for more collaboration between FE and HE institutions.

IT

Recommendations

* By 2005-06 all students will need their own portable computer.

Progress so far

* Students said few can afford PC.

REGIONS

Recommendations

* HE institutions should be represented on new regional bodies

* The Further Education Funding Council regional committees should include a member from HE

* Funding should continue to be available after April 1998, when the present provision from the Higher Education Regional Development Fund is due to cease.

Progress so far

* There will be no guaranteed place for higher education representatives on the 12-strong boards of the nine new regional development agencies

* DFEE is in the process of securing higher education membership on the FEFC regional committees

* DFEE will provide Pounds 3 million in 1998-99 to back continuation of the Higher Education Regional Development fund in England.

Scotland

Garrick's recommendations

* Scottish graduates should not be penalised financially for taking four years for an honours degree when the comparable qualification could be gained in three south of the border

* Establish two separate funding councils for further and higher education under a single organisation and with a single chief executive

* Give the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council responsibility for all degree work

* SHEFC and QAA to negotiate to ensure Scotland's inclusion in QAA's work.

Progress so far

* Government followed Garrick's recommendation to the letter, if not the spirit, waiving fourth-year tuition fees for Scots but not students from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Has pledged an independent review of the impact

* Scottish FEFC to be set up next year, sharing a chief executive and administration with SHEFC

* SHEFC will fund only its 21 higher education institutions, with the SFEFC funding all work in further education colleges, including degree courses

* SHEFC has ended its own quality assessment cycle and "expects to be able to contract" with the QAA, which has set up a discrete Scottish office.

NORTHERN IRELAND

Recommendations

* Set up Tertiary Education Forum, Higher Education Funding Council and Further Education Funding Council

* Large rise in number of higher education places in the province

* Government to reassess scale and nature of research funding.

Progress so far

* No moves to create funding councils or a tertiary forum

* Slight easing of the maximum student aggregate cap, plus Pounds 40 million towards the Springvale "educational village" collaboration between Ulster University and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education

* Slight boost in research funds.

REACTION FROM MEMBERS OF THE MAIN DEARING COMMITTEE

Sir Geoffrey Holland

Vice-chancellor of Exeter University, former DFEE permanent secretary The committee's key message that higher education faces a funding crisis seems to have fallen on deaf ears, said Sir Geoffrey Holland.

"We were not joking when we said the sector faces financial crisis. The government's apparent belief that you can expand student numbers and maintain quality through efficiency gains is naive."

Sir Geoffrey was also disappointed that the government scrapped maintenance grants for the poorest students. "There are a lot of uncertainties about what the decision will do to the pattern of choice for students and whether they decide to go on to higher education after A levels," he said.

Nevertheless, there has been some "pleasing progress". Sir Geoffrey cited the shift to resource-based accounting for student loans, moves towards an Arts and Humanities Research Council, work on quality recommendations by the Quality Assurance Agency, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England's taking responsibility for all English higher education funding.

Sir Geoffrey said he has only three regrets. The first is that the committee "neglected" the international aspect. "We did not take full account of the fact that we are part of one higher education world, and the fact that how international exchanges and credit transfer might develop is an important lacuna."

He also said "the part the committee got wrong" was on support for part-time students. It should at least have recommended extending loans to part-timers, he said. Finally, the "compact" among the state, students, institutions and business was a "nice intellectual concept" but one that was difficult to define practically.

"Nevertheless, there seems to be a pleasing emphasis on public/ private partnerships," he said.

John Arbuthnott

Vice-chancellor of Strathclyde University

The most important advance resulting from the Dearing report is the acceptance of the principle of student contributions to the cost of higher education, said John Arbuthnott. This has helped to build the "compact" among stakeholders, which is a useful framework that has been taken up by parliament and representative bodies, he said.

"The fact that there is now a principle of contribution represents a major change in higher education that would probably have not come about if it were not for Dearing. It proves it was a landmark report," he said.

The report also embedded notions of lifelong learning and wider participation in higher education. Other benefits have been moves to professionalise teaching and more awareness of the growing role of information technology in delivering flexible learning.

Professor Arbuthnott said he was pleased with progress on issues raised in the Garrick report on Scottish higher education, including the future of the Scottish honours degree and proposals for a new credit framework.

In retrospect, he felt that the Dearing committee had done a good job in the short time it had. "It was not easy for the committee members because we were encouraged to conduct a very intense debate in a short time, and there was no way of knowing what the response would be. For the most part, I think we got it right," he said.

Sir George Quigley

Chairman of Ulster Bank

Despite continuing controversy and debate over proposals on quality and standards, there has been a general acceptance that what Dearing recommended was "along the right lines", said Sir George Quigley.

The QAA's proposals for a new quality assurance system have proved "fully in line with the spirit and the letter" of what Dearing suggested, said Sir George, who was a member of the Dearing working group on teaching, quality and standards and a committee member.

The key message that institutions should spell out what they are trying to achieve and be checked to see that they meet their targets had been built into the QAA's proposals.

"I do not feel there is anything very major that we missed. But it is going to be a long haul before all the proposals are carried through," he said.

Simon Wright

Student representative on the committee

Simon Wright was keen to see a positive government response to proposals on student support. In the end, he was "disappointed" by the handling of the debate over tuition fees and the axeing of grants.

"I was unhappy about the government's pre-empting the report's proposals with its own plans for student support. But I was pleased with how the sector responded to it, and the overall positive response to the report," he said.

One issue that emerged "naturally" from the committee was that of providing students with more information about courses. "If students are going to be asked to contribute to the cost of their courses, they want to be able to make the most informed decisions about which course to choose," he said.

REACTIONS FROM ACADEMICS

Cal Weatherald, access and guidance at Sheffield Hallam University

"It is not clear where responsibility lies for taking Dearing's ideas forward. The government concentrated mostly on financial implications, but who is taking on the report as a whole? Responsibility can really rest only with individual institutions."

Jane Mace, Southbank University, continuing education "The idea has filtered through that universities are as much about learning as teaching, which tends to improve the quality of the student experience. Dearing reinforced this: it helped the climate shift away from plain scholarship."

Bill Stephenson, UCL, mathematics

"I felt Dearing did not understand higher education. He comes from a vocational background, and the whole thing was done too quickly. It was a real chance to do something, but in the end it was a political fix to get people off the hook."

Alan John, University College of Ripon and York St John

"The impact has been good at the political level. But there is the worry that reactionary forces can support the established system. The downside is that the government hijacked the student-support suggestions. They could have led to a far more imaginative system if the secretary of state had not been so precipitate."

Gill Evans, history, Cambridge

"There was a lack of focus on the international scene because Dearing was nationalistic and inward-looking. It was a deeply inadequate document and not well implemented.

Jane Vincent, social work, Leeds Metropolitan University

"My main concern is that the recommendation of no tuition fee for social care courses has not been implemented. As mature students, they already struggle with family responsibilities, paid work and the demands of the course."

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