British higher education has changed out of all recognition since the start of the decade. Four years ago, the polytechnics became "new" universities, joined since then by a handful of other higher education colleges. Increasingly esoteric courses are offered. And numbers have boomed, with the years 198889 and 199394 seeing a 91 per cent increase in numbers of full-time students at new universities, a doubling of full-time mature students, and a 98 per cent increase in part-time postgraduates.
But problems are increasingly evident too. At least one Far Eastern country now operates a "whitelist" of acceptable UK universities. There is a definite conflict between expansion and quality at some institutions, and the Higher Education Quality Council has been trying to define what a degree should constitute.
Some employers will only look at graduates of certain universities, and there is an increasing trend for people to take postgraduate courses to find better work - only to find they have priced themselves out of the market.
The system itself is also creaking under the strain, with cuts in government funding to the universities leading to increasingly serious threats to impose fees on undergraduates. A premier league of universities is already apparent, and likely to become formalised in the not-too-distant future. A new study by the Institute for Employment Studies has found that many of the old and new universities are doing very well because they cater for particular fields. Floundering more are some of the older institutions with less focused targets.
The time seems ripe for a searching look at what our universities should be doing now that we have a mass higher education system, encompassing around 1.6 million students and largely obeying the twin market forces of government cost-cutting and student demand for attractive courses.
This is what Sir Ron Dearing is now doing, but as he has discovered, it is difficult to establish whether or not universities are doing a good job or the right job without first deciding what their modern purpose is.
For example, as Richard Pearson of the IES points out, it is almost impossible to define the value added by different universities with increasingly diverse qualifications needed to get a place and no clear definition of the desirable end result. Is it a particular degree class, or employability?
Moreover, Luton graduates may do better than those from Oxbridge when it comes to finding a first job - but what about its quality, or the skills it requires?
Interestingly, the Government, which has pushed for greater accountability among schools for exam results, appears to have presided over a decrease in the amount of information and statistics published about universities. Johnny Rich, editor of the Push guide to universities, has found it impossible to get the "flunk rate" (drop-out statistics) for individual institutions this year, which he says are important to give intending students a warning that a particular university may either be taking lots of unsuitable undergraduates or have a problem such as expensive accommodation which is not otherwise apparent.
Meanwhile, Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, bemoans the impossibility of getting statistics on the entry qualifications for students on individual courses - figures which he says used to be published by the universities' entry organisation but not its polytechnics equivalent, and do not appear at all since the two were merged into the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Such information was, he said, often the marker of a good course.