Sector pays tribute to the man who reshaped higher education

Peers lament the passing of Lord Dearing, leader of the review that led to tuition fees. John Gill reports

February 26, 2009

Ron Dearing, who has died aged 78, has been described by his peers as a man of "deep humanity" who brought out the best in those around him.

The influence of his eponymous review of higher education, which was published in 1997 and triggered the introduction of tuition fees, is irrefutable, but it did not mark the end of Lord Dearing's career. He remained active throughout his seventies, latterly as a member of Times Higher Education's editorial board.

His good humour and modesty endeared him to colleagues in academia, the Civil Service and politics.

It says something about his lack of pretension that he listed visiting car boot sales as a favourite past-time in Who's Who.

David Greenaway, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, knew Lord Dearing from his tenure as chancellor of the university between 1993 and 2000.

Recalling Lord Dearing's commitment to work, even as he battled cancer, Professor Greenaway described bumping into him late last year in the House of Lords. "He was clearly unwell, but he was coming in because he felt he needed to contribute to debate. That was the sort of man he was," he said.

Sir Drummond Bone, former vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, described him as a "mix of enthusiasm, lateral thinking and deep humanity that was a rare combination".

Lord Dearing attended grammar school in Doncaster, where he recalled being "stung into action" academically by a report suggesting that he was a "likeable lad" but not a high achiever.

He left school at 16 to join the Civil Service, but went on to take A levels and a degree at University College Hull, now the University of Hull.

A succession of jobs saw him rise quickly through the ranks, and he was appointed chairman of the Post Office, a job he held for seven and a half years in the 1980s.

He was knighted in 1984, but three years later, aged 57, he quit the Post Office, revealing later that he had "hated" having to spend so much time fighting the unions.

In 1996, he made his mark on higher education when he was appointed to lead a 16-strong team charged with a root-and-branch review of the sector. A year later, under the new Labour Government, he published his findings in a report of about 2,000 pages, which made 93 recommendations. In 1998, he was made a life peer as Lord Dearing of Kingston upon Hull.

Among the review's key recommendations was that students should be charged £1,000-a-year tuition fees, ending the notion of free higher education. This was based on its finding that universities faced serious funding problems, and that unless a solution was found quickly, teaching and research would suffer.

The review argued that fees should be levied regardless of family income, with loans to help cover expenses, but that grants to meet living costs should be retained.

However, on the day the review was published, the Government announced that it would introduce tuition fees, but that they would be means-tested and the grant element would be scrapped.

Lord Dearing later admitted that this was a major disappointment.

"We all like to feel we got it right. I think ours was the best solution," he said.


I think it was the week Lord Dearing's review of higher education was published that The Times Higher Education Supplement sold its highest-ever number of copies - such was the anticipation surrounding it.

If newly elected ministers with a huge majority had had the courage to act briskly on his principal recommendation - that they keep student grants but introduce fees to be repaid after graduation - everyone would have been spared a lot of trouble.

Auriol Stevens, former editor, The THES

He did more than anyone to bring employers and higher education together, with a clear respect and deep understanding of both sides' perspectives and a desire to foster engagement. He bore his long illness with immense fortitude. He will be greatly missed.

Helen Perkins, director, Society for Research into Higher Education

Ron Dearing was one of my oldest friends in public life. His contribution to education was outstanding for both Conservative and Labour governments.

His abiding love was technical education and for the last year of his life we worked together to establish a new type of technical college sponsored by universities for 14- to 19-year-olds, where apprentices and students would take technical diplomas.

The first University Technical College was announced in December, just before the onset of his final illness. More will follow, and they will be part of his enduring legacy.

Lord Baker of Dorking

Not only was he totally convinced and convincing about the importance of higher education in the lives of people of all ages, but he was also a constant advocate and supporter for the sector. I shall miss him as a personal friend and confidant. His death is a sad loss.

Diana Warwick, Chief Executive, Universities UK

Lord Dearing made a tremendous contribution to many aspects of our education system, not least higher education. He deserves significant credit for the quality of our world-class system.

John Denham, Secretary of State for Universities

He was a real trouper and will be sorely missed.

Bernadette Porter, provincial treasurer, Society of the Sacred Heart.

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