Roberts departs as Dearing delivers

July 18, 1997

Sir Gareth Roberts, the man behind the Dearing report, reflects on two tumultuous years as CVCP chairman to Huw Richards

WAITING for Dearing may be this week's universal fate, but Gareth Roberts could be forgiven for waiting with greater tension than most.

For the recently knighted chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into higher education has been the defining theme of two years in office, finishing at the end of July when Martin Harris of Manchester University takes over.

"My first meeting of the main committee was in December 1995, the meeting at which we refused to meet the minister and gave Tony Clarke, the civil servant sent in his place, an extremely hard time over the savage cuts in that year's autumn statement. That was an important moment in the lead up to Dearing. My last meeting before Martin takes over will consider our reaction to the report."

Sir Gareth's interest will be deepened by a certain proprietorial pride. He can, and does, claim to be one of the chief architects of the Dearing process. "I honestly believe that our pressure prompted the appointment of the Dearing committee," he says.

When they first met in October 1995, then further and higher education minister Eric Forth told him: "We'd be very happy to see the vice chancellors energising the debate over funding."

The Government, through Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke, got there first with those savage November 1995 cuts, vastly accelerating the developing financial crisis in universities.

Then came the CVCP's threat of a Pounds 300 levy on all first-year students, suspended until after the next budget following a meeting between Sir Gareth and education secretary Gillian Shephard.

A few days later he was called to another meeting, at which Mrs Shephard told him that Dearing would be set up.

Since then, he says: "Sir Ron has kept in regular touch and we've been very happy with his receptiveness to our suggestions."

He worries that other significant issues will be submerged in concern over funding. "Robbins managed to provide a vision for the system for the next 20 years. We must look to Dearing to do that as well," Sir Gareth points out.

He says he does not know what the report will say next week, but hopes that on funding Sir Ron will have been convinced by the logic of CVCP's argument that students should repay a proportion of their tuition costs. If stories about a possible Pounds 1,200 per student charge prove correct, expect cheering from the direction of Tavistock Square.

He recognises that this might make life difficult for education secretary David Blunkett, known to be worried about the possible impact of fees on working-class students. "Sir Ron might give David Blunkett a get-out by at the same time advocating an improvement in the maintenance grants for students from the homes with the lowest incomes," he suggests.

On quality he would like to see clear directions given to the Quality Assurance Agency. "There should be a code of conduct on matters like external examiners and staff development. Some of our members have let the system down badly."

The key issue on research is providing realistic overheads, and he sees a continuing drift to more selectivity, possibly based around regional centres of excellence.

Sir Gareth rejects any suggestion that the CVCP is likely to fracture in the wake of Dearing over mission and funding priority: "We have held together very well over the last couple of years and I believe that a common interest in scholarship and our new sector groups structure will help provide coherence."

The sector groups form part of an organisational transformation of the CVCP that Sir Gareth clearly believes will be regarded, even more than his role in creating Dearing, as his main legacy to the committee. "When I was elected, the CVCP still had much the same structures as in 1918. I felt an organisation which now had 104 members needed a little more management," he says.

He argues that the creation of a six-strong executive and a reformed sub-committee system have helped make the CVCP much more proactive and effective, citing as examples the joint working parties with the Department for Education and Employment over the Private Finance Initiative and the seizing of the initiative over funding in late 1995 that won appreciative broadsheet and tabloid coverage and the ultimate prize of Dearing.

Evidence of this success, he suggests, can be seen in the en bloc re-election of his own executive to serve for another two years under Professor Harris. Sir Gareth himself will stay on, although his precise title has yet to be decided.

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