The build-up in universities and colleges is rather like the count-down to the hand-over of Hong Kong to China, although Hong Kong has only 74 days left. Both dates mesmerise. Normal business is on hold as the days are ticked off. But there the differences end. Higher education, ostensibly, is looking forward to a bright new post-Dearing future; Hong Kong to a brave new post-colonial world.
The morning after, of course, it will probably feel different. When the Dearing press conferences are over, the major interest groups (or, rather, "stakeholders" in by-then-Blairite Britain) have had their say, the newspaper headlines have yellowed and TV coverage has faded to the next novelty, universities and colleges will be where they are now - coping with inadequate budgets, stretched between wider access and academic standards, wondering what future they will have in the "knowledge society" of the 21st century.
It may be the same in Hong Kong. The morning-after-the-night-before will see the stock market open as usual, the Star Ferries between Kowloon and Hong Kong island as crowded as ever, the subway as packed and as gleaming as before, the same streets busy with the same hurrying mobile-phone callers. The Governor will have left his mansion, the VIPs will have checked out of their hotels, the last fragments of an imperial army will have departed with the lowering of the Union Flag. But nothing else, apart from a few hangovers, will have changed.
In one sense the Dearing report, like the re-establishment of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, will not make much difference. Just as Beijing can do nothing but go along with the consequences of acquiring overnight an Asian tiger-economy, Sir Ron and his colleagues cannot conjure up the extra funding that British higher education needs to maintain its elitish excellence in a mass age; nor can they wind back the clock and reinstate a neat hierarchy between more and less noble institutions by inventing a neo-binary system.
Whatever the fine print of their report, we in higher education cannot look forward to a restoration of the ancien regime. What we've got is all we're going to get (if we are lucky), even if students - sadly and unnecessarily - have to pay, under some new privatisation wheeze. And competition between different types of university is not going to go away, either, although perhaps its more rabid forms can be curbed. The so-called Russell Group will be the top universities and the Coalition of Modern Universities will represent the former polytechnics - with the "1994 group", mainly universities of Sixties vintage and former technological colleges, in the middle.
However, in another sense, the Dearing report will - or should - make all the difference. Its great predecessor, the Robbins report of 1963, did precisely that. But Robbins did not achieve its influence by its detailed recommendations being accepted by the Government; only two of them were - to turn the colleges of advanced technology into universities, and to establish the Council for National Academics Awards. Nor did it do so by providing a persuasive strategy for the future: Robbins's plan for expanding the university sector was abruptly abandoned in favour of creating the polytechnics.
Rather, the achievement of Robbins was its language (much of the report was written by Lord Robbins himself). Its success lay in its ability to draw a line between "before" and "after", between one era in the history of universities' Lucky Jim provincialism (and philistinism?), and another, that of the intellectualoid History Man - which led to the brave and enduring Open University, and the maturing of the polytechnics into a new kind of people's university.
The Dearing report will succeed if it can manage to do the same - in other words, as rhetoric rather than policy. It must try to catch the moment, an uneasy moment for universities and colleges awkwardly caught, in Matthew Arnold's famous phrase, "between two worlds, one dead, the other struggling to be born". Dearing must enable us to come to terms with, not just the fact, but also the idea that higher education has become a mass enterprise - if possible, by deploying the same aristocratic intellect that Robbins so effortlessly commanded when it convinced an earlier generation of dons to accept and even embrace the opening up of higher education in the Sixties.
By catching the moment, the Dearing report can capture the future agenda - but not in the sense of successfully sorting out the jumble of acronyms (MASNs, RAE, TQA, AUCFS, HEFCE and so on, and on) that have become the shrunken language of higher education policy. The real test of its success will be whether, long after its detailed recommendations have passed beyond recall, its message continues to reverberaten
The author is Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Education, University of Leeds.Reuse content