Trade-offs on road to Dearing success

November 15, 1996

In most discussions of the Dearing higher education review, attention has legitimately focused on what the French would call the organisational and financial imperatives.

That is not to dismiss them. Any serious review of how the education and training needs of both UK plc and the individuals who comprise it can be met in the longer term has to address issues of affordability and the shape and scope of publicly funded provision. These are critical supply-side questions.

Cognisant of the opportunity to mark a turning point in the history of education policy, the committee appears to be attempting to avoid the snare of simply providing "quick fix" solutions to the short-term crisis so successfully exploited by the vice chancellors. Its remit has been rightly broadened beyond matters of a strictly utilitarian nature.

The lessons learned from the earlier Robbins review are transparent. While part of the committee's task is to defend and legitimise the expansion that has taken place, it makes sense in public expenditure terms to try and establish future priorities.

The publication of the consultative questionnaire represents a pragmatic and sensible method of attempting to manage the volumes of opinion generated by the review as well as helping shape, in the classical civil service tradition, the list of recommendations forming an integral part of the final report.

However, there are arguably two big weaknesses with this approach. First, there is a risk that taking the current policy paradigm as a given may constrain the consideration of options which, while less conventional and safe, may be more appropriate to social and economic needs in 20 years time. As Robbins warned, universities have traded autonomy in return for public subsidy, leading to a loss of both public and self esteem.

"Thinking the unthinkable" might lead to questions about the legitimacy of the overheads on the system represented by the plethora of funding and other agencies to which universities are currently accountable. As far as teaching is concerned, different sorts of partnerships might meet a higher level of both social needs and individual wants.

Obvious examples include limiting public subsidy either to students or to the "preferred suppliers" of high quality initial post-secondary education, perhaps in areas where manpower planning is defensible. Training and continuing professional development might then be provided at cost in a more competitive market, paid for by individuals or their employers.

Second, attention may be diverted from some underlying and more intractable issues related to demand. These include cultural and attitudinal changes needed for survival, and development in the uncertain years ahead.

At issue here is the British disease of short-termism. Thus, a recent Confederation of British Industry study notes a decline in investment in human and physical capital in British companies both absolutely over time and in relation to our main competitors. Investment in training and education remains at a stubbornly low level, especially for smaller companies in the wealth-creating sector, despite the exponential growth of government-led and government-sponsored initiatives.

While the model of a low-skilled, low-waged economy has bought national economic success in the short term, it is not sustainable, economically, socially or morally, in the longer term.

The real challenge to Dearing is to produce both the vision and the mechanisms for engineering the cultural and attitudinal change needed to ensure adequate levels of personal, public and corporate investment in education and training in the years ahead. At the minimum, this involves transforming the notion of higher education from that of a free good for the fortunate few into that of an essential investment available to all.

Some method of linking individual responsibility and benefits to social responsibility and rewards might then point the way to a more equitable division of the costs of education and training between all beneficiaries.

Diana Green is pro vice chancellor at the University of Central England at Birmingham.

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