No news can be good news

April 26, 1996

The Pope - No News". Inscribed on evening paper placards by an ingenious publicity manager, that slogan did wonders for sales of the old Star among London catholics on a day when there genuinely was no news about the pontiff. In like spirit the temptation grows for the THES to tantalise readers with the headline "Dearing - No News".

The length of time being taken to put together the committee of inquiry, names promised around Easter, suggests the Secretary of State and Sir Ron may be having a bit of bother with the selection.

The delay suggests a lack of urgency. Afterall the main purpose - of getting higher education off the political agenda - was triumphantly achieved simply by announcing the inquiry. Secondly, the chairman, Sir Ron Dearing, has quite rightly been taking a break after his review of qualifications for 16-19 year olds. When too many of those with work work too hard, taking holidays, particularly by those still working beyond retirement age, has to be a good idea.

More important, there is a chance that taking time will produce a skillfully constructed committee. This will be a testing balancing act. A group of around a dozen people will have to satisfy the major interest groups without looking like delegates. Since the timetable, with a final report next summer and possibly an interim report around February in accordance with Sir Ron's previous habits, will not allow time to bring complete outsiders up to speed, those chosen will need a fair degree of knowledge.

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will need to be heard without English interests being hijacked. There will certainly be people appointed by the combined Education and Employment Department with a strong interest in making sure higher education is sufficiently (which begs a big question) vocationally orientated. Less certain is that there will be people with a real understanding of the intellectual excitement that goes with the highest level of academic research, scholarship and teaching in universities.

Dearing cannot be a re-run of the 1960s Robbins Committee. Robbins was higher education reporting on itself in the days when governments shrank from offending the universities. That won't do any more. There are now many other stakeholders (to adopt today's jargon). But there are limits. During his hols Sir Ron could do worse than take in the stage revival in London of Twelve Angry Men. Nobody wants Sir Ron's group to be angry of course - and they certainly must not all be men. But Reginald Rose's play brilliantly demonstrates the limitations of the "fresh mind" fetish. Assembled as instruments of justice, his jurors carry with them baggage and prejudices of their external existence.

So too with the fresh external minds the government has been determined to bring to bear on perceived provider vested interests. They can bring genuine insight. But on the whole accountants bring accountants' minds, bankers bankers' minds, the prejudices are different but prejudices none the less. Universities, which have triumphantly succeeded, despite the strains, in fulfilling the tasks expected of them, have arguably had enough of external views suggesting that academics' real problem is not behaving sufficiently like chartered accountants. The range of fresh minds should be broad. Artists, writers, scientists have things to contribute alongside businesspersons and accountants.

And let there also be space for that related academic trait, the one that says "why?" in the face of conventional wisdom. Many observers assume that the review's main function is to provide authoritative underpinning for the introduction of something like the Australian funding system. Its secondary role, to ensure economic usefulness. If these things are to be done, let them be done with generosity of spirit and with imagination and as the outcome of real debate among people prepared to ask inconvenient questions and seek out possible alternatives. This review is too important to be simply a vehicle for enabling government better to achieve its agenda.

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