By common consent the Dearing inquiry potentially represents the most searching review of higher education in Britain since the monumental Robbins report of 1963. The distinctive Scottish system of higher education has been acknowledged by the Government in agreeing to a separate Scottish committee which will report to the main committee (it is not a semantic nicety to underline that it is not described as a "subcommittee"). If it is true that Michael Forsyth insisted on a Scottish committee against the advice of the Department for Education and Employment and, it has to be said, in the face of reported opposition by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, then all credit to him.
Robbins did not have a Scottish committee but the higher education sector in those far-off days was worlds away from the complexities of today. In Scotland, for example there were just four universities catering for an age participation index of 5 per cent. Words like accountability, competitiveness and quality assurance were alien to the culture then existing. Universities did not bother to publish prospectuses nor saw any need to do so. The Committee of Vice-chancellors and Principals spoke exclusively for the whole of the UK university system and the University Grants Committee funded it. Indeed, Scotland had no representative body of its own and no one had any thought of inventing one. The four principals exchanged notes on common issues and once a year the university courts came together at a private mansion in Edzell where, legend has it, the first item on the agenda was a challenge croquet match on the immaculate lawns. Further, the claret at dinner had to be grand cru.
Contrast the remit of Robbins with the remit of Dearing and you get a clear picture of the extent to which higher education has changed out of all recognition in the intervening 35 years. Robbins was charged with the task of advising HMG on the "principles" on which future development should be based, taking account of "national needs and resources". Dearing is presented with no fewer than 13 separate paragraphs setting out the "context" in which the inquiry is to be conducted and concluding with a further five paragraphs that effectively prescribe for the committee in advance the "principles" the Government has already required it to follow. A different agenda and a very different vision. Cynics will say that Robbins was presented with a clean slate, Dearing with a "loaded" question paper.
Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that the task facing the Dearing 17 is infinitely more complex than that confronted by the Robbins 12. Sir Ron himself has admitted that his agenda is "vast" and that whereas Robbins assumed that he was proposing changes that would set the pattern over less than two decades (to 1980), Dearing believes that the outcome of his report could influence the direction higher education will take for perhaps 40 years or more.
In any event, the Scottish "angle" is immensely important. Setting aside the two fundamental aspects of the inquiry that, as it seems to me, are bound to preoccupy Dearing to a disproportionate extent, funding (including student support) and quality and standards (related but not synonymous), I would judge that regionalisation will figure prominently in the committee's deliberations. At a recent conference in London at which Labour set out its stall and provided a convenient, but at times confusing, preview of the relevant part of its electoral manifesto, it became clear that the party favours a regional solution to some of the issues to be confronted by Dearing. It is no accident that such a scenario sits quite comfortably with Labour's commitment to a Scottish parliament.
So what are the special Scottish issues? I believe that three and possibly four are of special significance. If we take as our starting point the recently issued consultation paper, and put it alongside the terms of reference, these factors begin to emerge as the likeliest areas where a Scottish "spin" could be vital. In a national context, is it agreed that the features which currently contribute to the distinctiveness of Scottish provision ought to be maintained? Vitally important sub-questions include those relating to the future of the four-year honours degree (crucial in anticipation of the implications of the Higher Still reforms for university and college entry) and to cross-border flow of students. In a more narrowly Scottish definition of diversity, respondents could be expected to attempt to grapple with the accusation sometimes made that if we want diversity among institutions the funding models currently in place are incapable of delivering it.
A regional vision should be cautiously supported by Scottish institutions since Scotland, in this context, would presumably be regarded as a region within the UK sector with its own distinctive part to play. Of course, regionalisation in the micro sense means something quite different again, raising the kind of issues recently highlighted by the SHEFC. I am inclined to think that, if favoured by Dearing, regionalisation could actually enhance, not diminish, the distinctive Scottish approach. At the same time, there are dangers lurking within the concept of emphasising regional importance, most obviously funding. No one I know wants any element of funding to be at the disposal of local authorities, as happens in certain countries in Europe. Furthermore, it would be absurd to regard research, for example, as a regional activity. Regionalisation must not be confused with parochialism if our institutions are to continue to be major players on the national and international stages.
As an extension of the regionalisation argument, it is difficult to resist the thought that, at bottom, this is what Dearing is all about. And it is precisely in this context that Scotland can play a trump card. The McNicoll report on the economic impact of higher education in Scotland, commissioned by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, surely laid to rest the still persistent notion of higher education as Newman's Ivory Tower, its protagonists self-indulgently wallowing in intellectual games of no conceivable application to the ordinary citizen. McNicoll demonstrated for the first time not only that higher education benefits the wider world in much more than strictly educational terms, but more important, it represents a vital element of Scotland plc. In other words, higher education, for the Scots, is, truly, in the words of Adam Smith, a "public and an economic good". The Scottish committee should press this point home: that education enjoys a wider and higher esteem in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK and that this is no fairy story, the notable success of inward investment in Scotland being ultimately inexplicable if education is left out of the equation.
Dearing presents a great challenge. Of course, it would be wrong to ignore the possibility that the outcome could rob Scotland of its last vestiges of distinctiveness. However, the fact that we have a Scottish committee in session alongside the main committee guarantees that all of the issues will be scrutinised by people who recognise Scottish higher education for what it is and will not be led astray by values and concepts that are unrecognisable in Scotland. To that extent, we should be optimistic. We should look upon the inquiry as an opportunity for Scotland to make its voice heard. But we should not ignore the threats it may represent.
Ronald Crawford is secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals. The views expressed are his own.