Mr Fix-it to put work first

March 8, 1996

In his book about how to be a minister, published in 1980, the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman singled out a then unknown civil servant, Ron Dearing, for special mention. As a deputy secretary at the Department of Industry, Mr Dearing was not only "brilliant, inventive, humorous and loyal", he said, he was also a "prolific writer of submissions".

"I once even contemplated writing a novel in the style of E. M. Forster called A Submission from Mr Dearing," says Kaufman. "It was eventually decided that Ron Dearing's formidable if idiosyncratic skills could be put to more fruitful use and he was appointed head of the nation's postal services, so reaching his apotheosis in supervising the safe and speedy transmission and delivery of other people's submissions and kindred written communications."

Fast forward 15 years, and we see that Mr Dearing, now known as Sir Ron or even Saint Ron, is still at it. Having sorted out the Post Office, he is sorting out the nation's education system. Last week he was putting the finishing touches to his report on qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds; after Easter he tackles his next momentous problem - the shape, structure, size and funding of higher education.

It has surprised some observers that Sir Ron, at the age of 65 and having suffered from cancer (which appears to have been checked), should want to take on the task. But the former mandarin is not one to turn down such an opportunity. Anyway, everyone agrees he is an inspired choice, liked by vice chancellors, the Association of University Teachers, politicians of differing persuasions, industry, Whitehall, and the British public. "I can't think of a better choice for anything than Ron Dearing," says Kaufman.

With his appointment the Government has bought peace in the universities until the next General Election. By the time Sir Ron reports in 15 months, everyone will have forgotten that vice chancellors were threatening a Pounds 300 entry fee for all students to recoup Government cuts and that for political reasons ministers were opposing any extra charge.

"If you are going to have an inquiry, he is the only choice, the only person who would inspire confidence in such a disparate bunch," says John Ashworth, outgoing director of the London School of Economics. "What we want is a system of funding that will work. For that a lot of interests have got to be squared, and he squares those interests."

Most experts believe that a respected and neutral figure like Sir Ron is the right sort of person to be making some kind of parental or student contribution towards tuition fees politically palatable. Tony Becher, professor of education at Sussex University, says: "Basically what he's been appointed to do is to tell the world at large that charges must be made for students - that students must pay for part of their higher education."

If Sir Ron can achieve that he will manage what no political leaders can do. According to John Tomlinson, director of the University of Warwick's education department, Sir Ron will quickly appreciate all points of view and try to heal without fudging. "That's a very rare gift," he says.

But if Sir Ron is to persuade the British public to surrender free higher education, he may need more than his well-honed qualities as a safe pair of hands and all-purpose fixer. Some observers wonder whether he has the vision and political skills necessary for such a wide-ranging review addressed at such a big audience.

Solving the impasse over schools tests by finding a point of consensus - slimming down the curriculum - is a different matter from looking at how higher education should develop over the next 20 years. Undoubtedly, Sir Ron's appointment has already got ministers off their higher education hook. But will his report be a Robbins for our times, emulating the report produced by the eminent economist Lord Robbins in 1963, which paved the way for the expansion of higher education?

Sir Ron has all the advantages that come with being a Whitehall insider. Since 1987, when he was made a member of the old Council for National Academic Awards, he has learned his way around education too. Successively chairman of the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council, the Universities Funding Council and then the combined Higher Education Funding Council for England, he moved into the hotter schools' world more recently when the then education secretary John Patten asked him to chair the merged Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority and sort out the mess over curriculum and testing.

"I've survived it," he says. "Nearly three years later, I'm still here." Did he find education a strange, new world? It was frightening, he admits. At first he did not know what was leftwing and what was rightwing, and was perplexed when informed. He used to say the most innocent, outrageous things, but people were kind to him, he says. "It was very hairy for a while until I found out what was left and what was right. It's astonishing I managed to survive it."

Sir Ron belongs to that dying breed that achieved higher education through hard work at night and at weekends, in his case while doing his national service in the RAF and later on a scholarship. He left Doncaster grammar school at 16, got a job in the labour exchange, but found he could not progress without a degree. His background in Yorkshire had been relatively humble. His father, a clerk in a dockyard, was killed by a bomb in 1941 when young Ron was ten, after which he lived with a succession of different families. Once he had won his degree in economics from Hull University he never looked back, which is why he appreciates the hallowed Robbins principle of access to all who are qualified by ability and attainment and who wish to go to university.

Sir Ron has been dipping into the Robbins Report and thinks it's a "tremendous" principle. "It's the kind of thing you could fight for," he says. "When I read that I thought 'I like that principle.' After all I was one of those who had to batter at the door to get into higher education. I found it very difficult to get through the door because I didn't have any money."

The nation has benefited tremendously from free higher education, Sir Ron acknowledges. But for it, we would not have the 30 per cent participation rate we do now. The question is whether we can go on with that kind of subsidy. The national targets for education and training assume that 60 per cent of young people will have two A levels or their equivalent by the year 2000. Does that mean that 60 per cent have the right to free university education? And what would that mean for university education? What kind of learning is best for all these people?

As yet, Sir Ron has not begun his inquiry. He is simply asking a bunch of questions. But in conversation he makes clear how important is the vocational aspect - preparing people for the workplace, and he mentions, perhaps significantly, that subdegree courses, Higher National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates, may play an increasing role in universities.

"Education isn't just about equipping people for work, but if you don't (prepare them for work) then they're going to miss out on so many of the good things," he says. A university may be the best place to learn but it depends what you want to learn. The workplace is a great place in which to learn too, he thinks.

Refusing to be drawn on whether 30 per cent is the right participation rate for higher education, he says the number of students in higher education is a moving target. "It's a game where you should advance, testing the ground as you go," he says. "The only way for a country like this to maintain and hopefully increase its standard of living is through a highly educated and highly trained workforce and I worry greatly that if we don't invest the right amount and in the right way, we shall lose out."

What is the scope of his inquiry? Very broad, he says, and broader than that given to Robbins. The system is much more diverse now than it was in the early 1960s, with 30 per cent of the population going into higher education compared with 6 per cent then.

Can Sir Ron improve on the four aims of higher education outlined by Lord Robbins in his chapter two: to prepare people for work, create cultivated men and women, advance learning and transmit culture?

These purposes still hold good today, says Sir Ron. But the first - preparation for work - is perhaps more important now because the numbers and range of people participating is greater and because: "In those days if you got a degree you got a job ticket," he says. "Now if you've got a degree, you've got an interview."

Sir Ron would put more emphasis too on equipping young people for lifelong learning, which translates into communication skills, information technology, use of number, interpersonal effectiveness, and a problem-solving approach. Robbins's fourth principle - the transmission of culture - is the one that fascinates Sir Ron the most and the one he thinks his committee will find the most challenging. "We have become a more diverse society than in his time," he says. "We have become much more geographically mobile. The bonds of neighbourhood are not as strong as they were."

There are some fears that as a bureaucrat for much of his life, Sir Ron may be swayed by central government to become involved in a manpower-planning model of higher education - deciding how many graduates the country needs, and in which areas, and closing the doors to everyone else. In other words, degrees for those who really excel, and vocational education for the rest. Sir Ron says he does not want to tell people what to do.

"I have spent my life telling people what to do from lofty offices like this and I've learnt it ain't a very good idea," says Ron, breaking into unexpected cockney. "Anybody at the centre has a limited knowledge and it's usually out of date."

He believes in building incentives into the system to prod it in certain directions - just as has been happening in recent years with university funding.

A market has been created, and that is a good thing, he says. "You guide choice, but you don't tell a student to go and study so-and-so because you won't get a good result."

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