The funding of higher education has been off the election agenda because all parties have been happy to leave awkward decisions until Dearing's recommendations are made. Students and their parents will have to face the facts of a system of mass higher education where the state cannot afford to pay for maintenance grants, but no party has an attractive solution to the problem and so all are content to ignore it for the time being.
But Dearing will shape more than student finance, as the Robbins report did for the sixties and seventies. It will look at the relationship with further education colleges, and as our report on page 28 shows, there is a Scottish dimension to that as well as to other aspects of Dearing's work. Our FE system is much more deeply involved in higher education than its equivalent in the south. It teaches more HE part-timers than do the universities. Increasingly, students take FE qualifications before joining a university degree programme. The blurring of the academicvocational divide envisaged in the Higher Still programme will surely reinforce the trend.
One issue will be the abandonment of today's binary system, which puts the funding of FE into a different camp from that of HE. In contemplating a further expansion of post-school education, the new Government will be impressed by the comparative cheapness of FE colleges, just as in the 1980s Baroness Thatcher's ministers constantly contrasted cost-conscious polytechnics with profligate universities.
The irony is that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer when Education Secretary gave the green light for the conversion of polys into universities, and there were costly implications to the newcomers' aspirations. A new Chancellor may look to FE to take on more HE work, but at basement prices.