Key issues beyond Sir Ron's remit

January 17, 1997

It is too bad that Samuel Beckett did not live long enough to see the first half of 1997. He would probably rather have enjoyed the spectacle of British higher education re-enacting his most famous creation, with Sir Ron Dearing playing the part of Godot. Even as he works to produce his report, Sir Ron can reflect that his inquiry has already succeeded in its initial aim - that of sparing the Government and its likely successor political embarrassment in the run-up to the general election.

Unlike schools, the sector seems unlikely to feature strongly in the campaign. Given the quality of debate over other complex social issues such as crime and punishment or homelessness, it is tempting to feel relief.

But there are still key issues outside Sir Ron's remit. Devising reforms to extract the system from its political and financial impasse is the task on which his inquiry will be judged. But however much this issue looms large, others more likely to feature at election time will also impact upon higher education.

As one of the relatively few issues on which there is serious distance between the main parties, constitutional reform and decentralisation will be one of the collision points of the election. The Conservatives are likely to rediscover the limitations of the central state and the virtues of local government if defeat deprives them of control of the one and forces them to look for solace in the other, much as Labour did in the 1980s, but for now the division is there.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to decide what tasks should be allotted not only to devolved Scottish and Welsh assemblies, but to the English regional bodies both are contemplating. There is a clear role for them in both further and higher education.

Devolution is already partly accomplished in Scotland and Wales by the introduction of national funding bodies. Placing them under the national assemblies would give them greater popular accountability than now exists under the Welsh and Scottish offices. England is a different challenge. Just as local authorities became constricting for polytechnics as they developed a national rather than regional role, so would being subject to regional authorities cramp universities with international outlooks. The University of Cambridge is a world institution; how would it cope if its funding came from an East Anglian regional assembly? But there is a possible regional role. Funding models promote competition and homogeneity at the expense of cooperation and diversity. Giving regional authorities seats on university governing bodies and funding them to encourage regional consortia and other means of cooperation would go some way to counteracting this pressure.

And their role could be more extensive in further education. Nationalising colleges never made much sense. The Further Education Funding Council has tacitly acknowledged this by the creation of regional committees. If there are to be regional authorities there is a strong case for asking them to look after further education, with the relatively unintrusive block-grant model formerly used by the Inner London Education Authority for polytechnics as a possible funding formula. Governing bodies must also be reformed. Domination by business interests reflects an over-simplified single-customer concept of education while the corresponding downgrading of local authority and staff representation has damaged both democratic accountability and the day-to-day knowledge of governing bodies. Both groups should be restored at least to parity with the businessmen.

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