Name calling

February 23, 1996

By one of those happy quirks thrown up by parliamentary timetables, Gillian Shephard's announcement last Monday of the Dearing committee on higher education followed on directly from Attorney General's question time.

Thus Sir Nicholas Lyell's determination to cling on to his perch and the opposition's vociferous attempts to dislodge him were followed by sweet bipartisan reason. The Government deployed a defence whose chutzpah recalls the classic anecdotal definition of that word - the man who murders his parents then claims mercy as an orphan - then implicitly conceded that a major policy issue had defeated it, acknowledged defeat by recognising that the opposition had something to contribute and finally resorted to the device of a national commission.

The inquiry, a committee as Robbins was, is a Royal Commission without the flummery- a long overdue break with the Government's established preference for deciding what the answers are before anyone thinks through the questions.

And just as Lionel Robbins was the right choice in an age when university matters were largely left to academics, so is Ron Dearing, a civil servant/businessman with a long track record as the Department for Education and Employment's Mr Fixit, well suited to the fresh role now confronting him. The wonder is that the Government, long impaled on a funding hook at least partly of its own devising, did not think of it before.

There will be cheers too for David Blunkett's view that "The public are heartily sick and tired of the knockabout politics that characterise so much of our public debate". If the issues can be settled without partisan name-calling, so much the better. But bipartisanship should be treated warily. Politics is about debate, offering and making choices. Nothing concentrates a politician's mind better than the prospect of votes to be won and lost, and little is more conducive to debilitating idea-free stasis than consensus. Bipartisanship has done little for Northern Ireland.

The most significant words in the draft terms of reference are "should report by the summer of 1997". In other words, safely after the General Election, when considering what to do with the recommendations may well be somebody else's problem - a reminder that one reason why radical Thatcherism dumped such royal commissions was impatience with establishment delaying tactics. How far this delay also suits Labour will be clearer when they publish their further and higher education plans, which will go as a submission to Dearing, next May.

Liberal Democrat irritation at this big-party collusion is understandable. Don Foster, who published his party's ideas this week, may find his best themes are appropriated first by Sir Ron and then, with scant thanks, by the main parties - although one idea The THES would rather they forgot is that of using their proposed quality agency to determine fee levels.

Mr Foster has been consistently braver and more imaginative than his big party counterparts in seeking out solutions. He can afford to be - he is not going to be the next secretary of state for education and third parties have more to gain than lose by offering something positive - but he deserves credit for this.

And whatever Sir Ron eventually recommends, the initiative must not free the Government from responsibility for the immediate funding crisis which, for all Mrs Shephard's protestations, exists now in the universities. That is a matter for next November's Budget settlement and should not be put off. Nor should vice chancellors yet relinquish the threat of imposing a levy if that settlement is unsatisfactory just because Dearing will by then be half-way through his deliberations and a possible change of government will be in the offing. The vice chancellors have already surprised us once, by finding the collective will to at least contemplate the levy. They may yet surprise us again. Either way pressure on the Government to right the wrongs of the 1995 Budget should not let up.

Vice chancellors in particular should also be wary of the potential subtexts of bipartisanship. If it represents an alliance of the politicians aimed at controlling the universities, their enrolment numbers and their fee levels, it would ultimately be a backward step for the system. If Sir Ron wants today's comparisons with Robbins still to be valid in 20 years time, he will have to put a rein on the scope for government planners and controllers.

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