Regionalisation is climbing fast up higher education's policy agenda. It is being propelled by the Dearing committee's interest. Dearing is interested because the committee is likely to be reporting to a government committed to regional development (but with no clear idea what that means outside Wales and Scotland) and because regional arrangements seem to offer a solution to a number of otherwise intractable problems for higher education.
Dearing has commissioned research on higher education and regions from the University of Manchester. As part of that work, a study seminar was held yesterday to test out ideas for better regional collaboration not only with people in education but also in local government, the arts and industry. The results of the research will go to the committee in the next few weeks.
The Department for Education and Employment has also been busy, commissioning research from John Goddard at the University of Newcastle, as yet unpublished, on universities and economic development. This points out how far universities still have to go in marketing their services to local enterprises and reviewing their courses with an eye to regional employment possibilities.
An example of this under-performance was provided recently by the Central London Training and Enterprise Council in its report on higher education's relations with companies within the M25 (THES, February 14). This showed universities failing to market their services and businesses failing to exploit the assets around them - and urged all concerned to do better.
Unfortunately for regional enthusiasts, John Goddard's report could be used by the department as the basis to argue for more central prescription of, for example, quality assessment criteria and research funding formulae. It will not necessarily strengthen the case for developing regional centres outside Whitehall.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England too is preparing the ground for a regional future with its plans for a new regional structure (page 3). HEFCE also seems to be preparing to argue for renewed expansion on a regional and local basis so as to bring low participation areas and regions up to the present average.
The council's report, The Influence of Neighbourhood Type on Participation in Higher Education, released last week, shows regional participation varying from well under 30 per cent in the North-east,Yorkshire and Humberside and the East Midlands to approaching 40 per cent in London and the Southeast. But, using the home postcodes of young students entering higher education, it goes on to show that money has more influence than region. In the most affluent neighbourhoods up to 70 per cent of young people go into higher education compared to 10 per cent in the most disadvantaged. If, as the council suggests, 100,000 extra places would be needed to bring the lowest areas up to the present average, the council can be expected to argue that they should be provided on a locally targeted basis.
At the moment any excitement about regional development has more to do with promise than performance. Our series of regional reports over the past 18 months has shown that while there is much local collaboration between higher education and employers of all kinds, it is patchy and often dependent on a few enthusiasts. There are a number of programmes, run for example by the Employment side of the DFEE or the Department for Trade and Industry or the European Commission, which enthusiasts can use, but any political framework for regional development has been missing.
It will be needed if the benefits are to be realised. Ad hoc government initiatives come and go. They are piecemeal, short-term and liable to cuts when times are hard. Yet evidence from the United States, where there are some hugely impressive examples of what can be done, suggest that success depends on long-term investment policies by national, local or regional government.
Last summer The THES reported (July 19) the extraordinary growth of the biotechnology industries clustered round the University of California at San Diego. This is the result of deliberate investment made over 25 years ago by the State of California to bring high-flying staff to the new university campus.
Nine months earlier The THES brought Kathleen Nobel, president of one of South Carolina's highly successful community colleges, to London to tell the Association for Colleges' annual meeting (THES, November 24 1995) how state and county investment in training tailored to company specifications had, over 30 years, brought large-scale inward investment and reduced high unemployment effectively to zero.
Here at two ends of the post-compulsory education spectrum are examples of what can be achieved for research, for industrial success and for employment by long-term, sustained investment in universities and colleges. The hope for hard-pressed British institutions has to be that the Dearing report and a new government committed to economic regeneration and to education will together produce a similar wave of investment. It should be possible to tap departmental budgets other than the education budget to build up training opportunities in further education to match local employment needs. It should be possible to reinforce the bridges which lead from further education or employment to higher education so that access can become more equitable at a cost which does not provoke a Treasury clampdown.
The worry is that, outside Scotland and Wales, there seems to be little coherent demand for aggressive regional development policies and little political will therefore to tackle the difficult issues involved. Yet the message from the US seems to be that success depends on that political will.
Eighteen years of Conservative government have greatly weakened local government in Britain. The opportunity is therefore available to rebuild a robust system on new, regional lines. Doing so is particularly attractive if we are going to make a wholehearted commitment to Europe in the next couple of years, since that will provide a major boost to regional patterns of development. But that is a big "if" - and likely to remain iffy for some time.
Politicians once installed in office at Westminster tend to lose enthusiasm for rival centres of political power whether in Brussels or Manchester. The picture of "learning regions" or "region-states" operating in a global market, which is set out in one of the background papers circulated for yesterday's seminar in Manchester - a paper which draws on Kenichi Ohmae's paper, The Rise of the Region State (Foreign Affairs, 1993) - may be highly attractive to higher education and to local businesses. It is likely to seem less exciting in Westminster and Whitehall. Transnational and regional government go together and together they threaten the power of national governments.
Given that lack of enthusiasm, there will be all sorts of excuses for putting off reform. Already, for example, Labour borough councils in London are muttering against their own party's sudden promise of an elected mayor for the capital. Constitutional issues concerning the House of Lords, Scotland and Wales must come first and will inevitably be time-consuming and difficult.
It is not, therefore, easy to be confident that the structural political reorganisation needed to underpin regional restructuring of further and higher education will be carried through quickly - or at all. The question then for universities and colleges will be how much they can achieve on their own.