A key civil servant behind the Government's forthcoming lifelong learning white paper indicated this week that Sir Ron Dearing's higher education report will have a lower priority than vice chancellors are expecting.
Since Sir Ron's committee of inquiry reported in July, the Government has persistently told vice chancellors that policy answers will come in autumn in the white paper, Labour's definitive further and higher education legislative programme.
But John Seymore, the lifelong learning team leader at the Department for Education and Employment in Moorfoot, said this week that Dearing will be just a small part of the policy agenda. Other influences were destined to make a bigger impact, he said.
"The white paper will cover everything 16-plus," he said. "It will be the government's substantive response to the Kennedy report into further education and a whole series of other things as well as Dearing. Dearing's recommendations to do with the future development of higher education are part of the lifelong learning agenda. But the white paper will not include a blow-by-blow response to Dearing."
Mr Seymore said there was no emerging consensus as to what would be in the white paper. Its advisory group, chaired by Northern College principal Bob Fryer, had not reported. The dominant voices were not necessarily coming from the higher education sector.
Mr Seymore said he was convinced by a submission from the National Council of the Training and Enterprise Councils. He described the TEC report, A Lifetime of Learning, a Lifetime of Work, which paints a picture of the university as a much more vocational-based, part-time training provider, as "an outstanding analysis".
He also said that Helena Kennedy's report into widening access to further education, which advocated a major redistribution of money from higher education to further education, was going to be influential.
"Clearly widening participation is a significant issue," he said. "The question is how to create new opportunities to help people realise their potential. People will have to think very hard about the contribution they make."
He said that the broader post-compulsory vision would not be sketched out on strict institutional lines. "I think that the thinking can be over institutionalised," he said. "Of course universities are concerned with what happens to universities. But we have to break down the barriers."
He recognised that the white paper would inevitably be controversial. "I want sufficient people shouting when the document is published - even if they are shouting that it is wrong, so we can get it right in due time."