LEADING ARTICLE : Dearing: so much paper, so little inspiration

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The Independent Online
One can only conclude, from reading right through the summary and main report published by Sir Ron Dearing yesterday, that he and his committee buried themselves under toppling heaps of paper and a groaning din of evidence from which they never managed to escape. The report published yesterday is uninspired, pedestrian, and is bound to make some readers wonder whether this kind of vast extended commission is the right way to prepare for developing radical long-term policy. Certainly the outcome in this case is an indigestible set of recommendations of questionable consistency. The report itself claims to set out a "new vision" of a "new compact" (ghastly word, compact), but in reality it does no such thing. In fact, the biggest single disappointment is that it has thrown away a once-in-30-years opportunity to paint a vivid, compelling picture of what higher education in Britain could be like in 2020.

No doubt the authors of the report, and Sir Ron in particular, will be dismayed by this judgement. In some measure they will be justified. After all, it's a big, complex subject. Higher education is a diverse sector of semi-autonomous institutions, and the committee members had only 14 months to consider their very wide remit (most of us think 14 months rather a long time, but let that pass). Moreover, when the key proposals are distilled from the document, most are unobjectionable - indeed, virtually platitudinous. Of course we should have a "learning society". Of course it should be open to all of talent. Of course higher education needs to be properly funded. Of course we want to avoid nasty pay disputes. But the report reads across far too much of its acreage as if it is intent on summarising a "politically correct" received opinion about higher education - as if it is so eager not to offend anyone that it ends up saying all things to all people.

It is a great pity, not least because Sir Ron is one of the most impressive members of the great and good to emerge from the civil service and public enterprise machine since the end of the war. He has a fine mind, capable of distilling central issues. It does not feel as if such distillation skills have been applied successfully here.

No harm is done by publishing huge tomes of material: the 6kg compendium of information, opinion and options gathered by the committee will no doubt prove a useful resource for higher education policy-makers. But surely a primary objective of a report like this should be to give incisive guidance, to lead opinion, to challenge assumptions, and to portray an alternative in terms that have significance for the people who use this public service? Few students or parents will learn much about the future of higher education by reading even the summary.

Still, what does one make of what the report suggests? Sir Ron insisted in a Radio 4 interview yesterday that the issue of future funding options was not the main element. Nonsense. That is what the argument is all about.

The view that we need to increase participation to 40 per cent or more is incontestable. Moreover, most of that expansion should indeed be achieved by encouraging people (as in Scotland, America, or most other advanced Western nations) to undertake study short of a full-blown degree. But the past 10 years or so of rapid expansion have severely strained the system. Further reductions in the cost of educating an average student would in some institutions imperil quality. In order to achieve that further expansion while maintaining excellence, we need to work out a politically acceptable way of paying for it. We also need to establish the principles on which such a system must be based.

The report argues that neither government (ie, the general taxpayer) nor employers can afford the bill, even though both are clear beneficiaries. Students should bear the burden, where they can. Their earnings are considerably greater on average than those without higher education qualifications. Quite right: but the report suffers from a certain disingenuity about who will actually end up paying. In many cases, where they can afford it, parents will pay. Bright, successful graduates, who are being eagerly sought by employers, will be able to insist that the company recruiting them either pays them more to enable loan repayment, or gives them a golden hello to kiss off the debt quickly. A measure of inequity of that kind is unavoidable. The important thing is that talented people who are less well off should not be discouraged, nor should they be prevented from attending the best universities. This can be achieved either by Sir Ron's various routes, or the apparently preferred route being adopted by the Government. Which route you choose depends on how much money you want to raise for higher education, and how quickly.

But step back a moment. The very phrase "best universities" goes to the heart of what this report avoids discussing. Any honest vision of the future must accept that we are moving towards an essentially American- style system, in which there are three tiers of institution. The first is a kind of Ivy League of top-class research and teaching institutions. Some of those are pondering whether they will need to levy even higher fees. The second tier will be, in effect, local universities: in order to keep costs down, students will increasingly attend a university near their home, get a part-time job, and diminish the burden on their parents. The third tier will be colleges (and this is where the next phase of expansion must really happen) which teach sub-degree level courses, often vocationally oriented, often to mature students. Nothing is gained from side-stepping this description of the future: it is the direction in which we are heading, and we should be frank and open and happy about it. It is part of the business of modernising Britain.