Swallow whole after dizzying spin

July 25, 1997

Habits of opposition die hard: spin doctoring, preemptive briefing and anxiety about alienating substantial groups of voters have been much in evidence in the Government's handling of the Dearing report this week. Who would think it has a huge majority and five years to run?

What has not been in evidence is courtesy, care and the proper processes of good government. Parliament has been offended, the committee insulted and the public misled.

That said, the Government has taken the hard decision. It has accepted that more money is needed to maintain high-quality higher education; that the present rationing of places should cease and that the extra money will have to come from students and their families. Means-tested fees for full-time students are back after over 20 years.

There will be much discontent at the manner of it. Universities will be disappointed because the Government's plans differ from Dearing's recommendations in ways which could mean that less money will flow to them. As Baroness Blackstone says, more will be saved in the long term, but it will be on maintenance - and the risk of this money being siphoned off by the Treasury will be increased despite assurances that higher and further education will benefit. Up-front payments may help the short-term funding crisis identified by Dearing. But student contributions paid for from subsequent earnings do not produce cash for a long time.

Students, despite this last minute dealing, will be disappointed because they hoped that changes would be confined to abolishing grants, that free tuition would continue and be extended to part-timers, and that the support available to them would cease to depend on their parents' means.

Staff too will be disappointed. There is little enough comfort in the report on the subject of pay beyond kind words and proposals for (yet another) review of pay structures. There is no word of comfort at all in the Government's response. Yet academics will in future be required to train. More of them will be excluded from research and all will be subjected to greater consumer pressure from students.

And as for the public, because of the extraordinary way announcements have been handled, confusion is likely to be great. The first odd decision, taken weeks ago, was to preempt the report's findings by going ahead with plans to sell off the student debt. Dearing does not think this good value for money. It betokens a certain desperate search for ready cash.

Second, the report's publication was delayed for supposed reasons of Parliamentary business and then handled in a way reminiscent of the former Conservative government's handling of Lord Scott's findings on the arms to Iraq affair - all advance spin and no chance to digest a very long report nor to see the Government's plans in cold print.

Decisions to alter the report's main, carefully argued, recommendation on student contributions were leaked in a series of lobby briefings which made it impossible to tell what exactly had been decided. A mendacious spin was put on the response: the line, that students from poorer families would be spared additional costs and that no parents would have to pay more than they do now. This is misleading. Students from poorer families will not have to pay the Pounds 1,000 tuition charge but they will lose the grant entitlement they now have, leaving them roughly Pounds 1,000 worse off than Dearing proposed. They will be able to borrow more than richer students and so will have larger debts.

While it may be true that better-off parents will not have to pay more in terms of a mandatory parental contribution, their children will still need the money to live on and to meet the fee. If parents do not pay, children will have to borrow: taking families as the unit, the cost will be more, indeed it has to be or nothing is gained. Behind the spin it must be recognised that a major perk of the affluent classes - both those who are well off now and those who will be well off later - is being cut back. Perhaps this is Chancellor Gordon Brown's secret weapon for cooling the consumer boom fuelled by building society windfalls.

Government alterations to Dearing's proposals are also likely to have the opposite effect to that intended in respect of boosting reasonably funded growth in sub-degree higher education courses in further education colleges. Waiving tuition contributions for students from poorer homes will hit further education colleges, and, indeed, the least well-off universities, hardest because that is where such students are most likely to enrol. Under Dearing's proposals all students would have arrived with a Pounds 1,000 fee whether paid up front or borrowed. The money would follow the students.

But this does not work if some pay no fees. Colleges will have to be compensated, which suggests that contributions must be collected centrally and distributed according to Government criteria. Sir Ron's proposals, by attaching payments to students with a mortgage-type arrangement, were designed to keep the Treasury away from the new money. The Government's will make it easier to filch. Thus do piecemeal alterations to recommendations which were designed as a piece risk unravelling the whole.

Inevitably the fees furore has distracted attention from the rest of Sir Ron's report. Particularly important are the committee's recommendations on quality assurance. They advise giving the new Quality Assurance Agency three years to sort out a national framework for qualifications and threshold standards for degrees and to recruit and train a cadre of external examiners. In return they suggest the funding councils get out of quality assessment.

This is a tough assignment. It is also right, protecting university autonomy. The new agency and the universities will need to move fast. They would be unwise to ignore the veiled threat in the report of intervention if they do not. The Government is not likely to be patient or forgiving in this area.

Nor is it likely to be as generous as the committee hopes over research. The suggestions for pulling together the many support schemes for applied research under the Industrial Partnership Development Fund make much sense - as does the exhortation to government to consult before introducing new wheezes. The idea of an industry-backed loan fund for research equipment, however, looks like pie-in-the-sky: industry is famously unwilling to help with infrastructure costs. And the recommendation that an extra Pounds 110 million a year be provided for the research councils might be greeted with hollow laughter. It is exactly this kind of investment which is likely to be lost if the additional money raised from student contributions is eroded.

The health of research is of huge long-term importance but Mr Blunkett's statement this week contains no recognition of that aspect of universities' work. Investment in lifelong learning he understands, approves and values. Investment in new knowledge does not feature. Yet that is where wealth, jobs and new industries of the next century will come from.

Sir Ron (left) invites The THES to champion his report. We are happy to do so. Higher education owes him a debt of gratitude for a careful and balanced survey. Our pages will be open for all to contribute to the debate between now and the publication of the Government's white paper on lifelong learning in the autumn. Letters, and articles, of between 600 and 1,200 words, can be emailed to us on theslet@thes.co.uk or faxed on 0171 782 3300.

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