The View From Here

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The Dearing Report will quietly draw a line under an age of higher education that began in the austere optimism of the post-war years. That age cannot be simply described, because it was a time of great contradictions - not just universities versus polytechnics, but also F R Leavis's arts versus C P Snow's sciences, the donnish dissent of the New Left versus Harold Wilson's "white heat of the technological revolution". But one common characteristic transcended these contradictions: higher education was seen as a grand democratic project, and its expansion as the culmination of an educational revolution that had been reshaping British society since the mid-19th century.

As a public good, therefore, higher education should be free - or, more accurately, free to students and paid for out of progressive taxation. And the Dearing Report will be remembered as the end of free higher education, however tentative its proposals that students should be charged real fees. Of course, the members of the Dearing Committee cannot be blamed. They probably had no choice.

The beginning of the end of free higher education was long ago, in the consumer society that emerged in the Sixties. The seeds of its dissolution were sown in higher education's very success in expanding opportunities for part-time and postgraduate students, neither of whom had their fees paid. And its eventual abandonment was perhaps made inevitable by the successive funding crises that have swept over higher education since the IMF crisis of the Seventies, the Thatcherite cuts of 1981 and the expansion-on-tick of the late Eighties, and which continue unabated today. The recent Budget, Labour's first for 18 years, promises no relief for universities and colleges.

But, before turning our back on the age of free higher education, it is perhaps worth lingering for a moment - and wondering at the spirit of civic generosity that made such a thing possible.

When the Dearing Report is published next Tuesday, that golden age deserves to be remembered, though fleetingly and privately, because no one in an age when principles are as adaptable as institutions can afford to be caught on the wrong side of history. But free higher education is a system that made many of us. A prayer of remembrance surely can do no harm.

But, before putting aside for ever this sweet but impractical regret, two more down-to-earth questions need to asked. First, has the Dearing Committee - or anyone else - carried out a sensitivity analysis of its various fee-raising scenarios? Has it considered the possibility that raising the price, the effect, after all, of ending free (at the point of use) higher education, may reduce demand? Or does Dearing, like the rest of us, believe that the appetite for higher education is so great that no reduction is conceivable?

I hope their, and our, complacency will turn out to be justified. But, in my darker moments, I am afraid - afraid that Britain is still a deeply Philistine place that does not really value education; afraid that, despite David Blunkett's brave start at raising school standards, a stubborn minority of young people remains categorically excluded from any hope of participating in higher education (and excluded by us far more than by themselves); and that, while as citizens we may generously invest in our collective future (and individual dreams), as customers we are drawn to the meaner instrumentalities of value-for-money and cost-benefit.

After all, there is no real evidence that "consolidation", the previous government's policy of restricting full-time undergraduate numbers, led to large numbers of aspiring students being turned away. Overall supply and demand have nearly been in balance. And there is research evidence to suggest that perhaps 20 per cent of students are "marginal" - not in a pejorative sense, but in the sense that for them higher education is merely one of series of options for realising their ambitions, not a near- compulsory requirement, as it is for upper middle-class youth. So the prospect must at least be seriously entertained that charging students more for higher education may lead the system to shrink.

The second question is simpler: has anyone told the Treasury? Because unless the Treasury is prepared to adopt a much more flexible interpretation of what counts and what does not count towards aggregate public expenditure than it has ever shown any inclination for in the past, higher education could end up with no more money even if students are charged real fees - even in the short term. For higher education to be better off in the medium and long term, of course, the normal operation of politics - Nye Bevan's "language of priorities" - will have to be suspended. A variant on the has-anyone-told-the-Treasury question is: has anyone told the rest of the Cabinet, especially ministers in other spending departments?

But it is probably as late for pragmatics as it is for dreaming: too late. Next week, in the nicest possible English way, festooned with regret and bundled up in compromise, the Dearing Committee will recommend abandoning free higher education. And in that abandonment all of us will lose something small but important (although not, of course, as important as what we have lost by the erosion of the National Health Service): a piece of our past as a democratic people

The author is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Education at the University of Leeds.