The Commons select committee inquiry into higher education is in little danger of becoming another Dearing-style doorstopper, as chairman Barry Sheerman fears. Its terms of reference may be wide, but time and resources will limit its ability to produce so comprehensive a tour d'horizon . That does not make it less valuable. Taking evidence has allowed witnesses from higher education to discuss crucial areas, raising higher education's profile in a political world where schools are all, and has increased awareness of some complex issues. Evidence on access has undoubtedly moved along debate, and, judging from a spate of government moves to improve financial support for under-represented social groups, has already led to improvements. The access section of the committee's report, due in November, should carry the good work further.
Beyond that, consensus and closure will become harder to achieve as an election nears, exerting its tug on the political tide. To maximise its impact, the committee should now concentrate on a few key areas where agreement can be reached. Quality assurance is crucial and not politically contentious. Roger Brown's suggestions provide a starting point, drawing attention to the growing international market in higher education, and the arrival of rival providers would be useful. And, while issues of funding and diversity are bound to be harder to reconcile, there is one area where a firm push by legislators would win the lasting gratitude of the academic community and perhaps attract the attention of a somewhat arrogant executive: something must be done about pay.