Labour gives Sir Ron his head

May 16, 1997

LABOUR is hoping that Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education will offer some clear answers as well as questions about the future of the sector when it reports in July.

Tessa Blackstone and Kim Howells, the Department for Education and Employment ministers responsible for lifelong learning issues, said in one of their first interviews since their appointment that they did not want to anticipate Sir Ron's findings. Baroness Blackstone said: "We feel very strongly that the inquiry should come out with its views on how things should change in the next ten years. We don't want them to pander to the views of any particular political party - it is then up to us as the government to decide whether we agree."

Looking forward herself, Baroness Blackstone, who was Master of Birkbeck College, London before joining the Government, said she anticipated a system in which people moved in and out of higher education throughout their lifetimes, perhaps taking short courses lasting no more than a week or two.

This raises questions about qualifications - an area both ministers recognise as having extremely high priority - and perhaps points towards a credit-based system. Both are wary of specific comment on this, but have no doubt that students of all types will go on pursuing pieces of paper. "Both students and employers are likely to go on wanting an indication of what they have achieved," Baroness Blackstone said.

There are limits to how far Birkbeck lessons can be applied across the sector: "It has a unique and specialised role". But she suggests that its great expansion in postgraduate work - more than 40 per cent of its students are now postgraduate - may provide a pattern. "People combining their jobs with study, contributing to the economy, paying taxes and at the same time getting reskilling and updating."

The new team are wary of making detailed commitments, constrained both by the need to master large and complicated briefs and by the ingrained fiscal restraint which gave "as and when resources permit" a mantra-like quality in Labour's pre-election stance.

Baroness Blackstone smiles a trifle ruefully when accepting the suggestion that in moving from Birkbeck to take on the whole higher education sector she has exchanged one institution characterised by copious intellectual energy and a shortage of money for an entire sector which can say the same. Labour wants to see a better-financed system with better-paid staff resume the expansionary path so abruptly cut off a few years ago. But until resources permit...

Labour is off to a rapid start on schools policy, with David Blunkett launching initiatives at a rate close to one per day.

But this, says Baroness Blackstone, is a reflection of serious problems in schools rather than any neglect of the post-compulsory sector. "A substantial number of school pupils are not achieving, and that has to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

"There is no question of individual institutions failing dramatically in the further and higher education sector," she said.

So institutions may have to wait for money and substantial change. But this does not mean that there will be no immediate alterations. Dr Howells said: "There are areas where they will find it easier to do things than before. For instance they will find they can cooperate much more with other institutions than they could previously."

He points to the likelihood of more regional cooperation, both within and between sectors, and speaks enthusiastically of the potential uses of information technology in spreading the vast stores of information available in universities.

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