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Platform: Bring on the Scots debate

No quick reaction to the voluminous Garrick and Dearing reports could assess their full implications. But three features stand out as having significance for Scotland. The most obvious is the change to student maintenance, in the version now preferred by David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Full-time students will have to pay up to #163;1, 000 in fees per year, and will no longer have access to any maintenance grant, that being replaced by a loan. All of this will be means-tested according to the income of students' parents, and the repayment of the loan will be related to students' earnings after graduation.

What this will do for participation in higher education is unclear. Even though Dearing commissioned two research papers on inequality, they have little to say on loans and fees, and the separate paper on the implications of loans and fees pays only scant attention to inequality. The papers on inequality do show that the existing system has made inroads into social inequalities over the past three decades, most notably in gender and ethnicity, but also, in the past five years, with respect to social class.

The main reports from Garrick and Dearing barely acknowledge this progress. The paper on student finance cites some North American research which suggests that fees deter poorer students, but also notes that the Australian scheme of fees and loans has not widened social inequalities, probably because - as is proposed here - repayment is related to graduates' income. So the best that can be said about the new system is that it might not widen inequaliti es. It will narrow them only if it allows for further significant expansion of higher education, which would probably disproportionately benefit poorer students (as has been happening since the early 1990s).

Going further than that would require more radical action - the second point. The reports come forward with no more than an uncosted proposal that unspecified incentives be offered to institutions which expand access courses. They do not analyse what would be required to allow these courses to make a fundamental impact on broad trends. More generally on access, the reports are thoroughly inadequate in their assessment of the role of schools in preparing young entrants. I have not been able to find a single mention of comprehensive education in the reports themselves, and even the research papers virtually ignore it. Yet the conclusion of every research study that has been done on this matter in Scotland is that comprehensive schooling has slowly reduced social inequalities in access to post-compulsory education of all types.

In particular, there is almost no attention in the Garrick report to the scope which Higher Still offers to widen access (by breaking down the barriers between vocational and academic routes). Garrick pays much more attention to the Advanced Higher (which will be taken by a minority even of university entrants) than to the main thrust of the Higher Still reforms.

In any case, the reports are unduly dominated by the concerns of young, full-time entrants. Social inequalities are already lower among part-time students, and among students aged over 21, than they are among people who enter more or less directly from school. These groups already make up the majority of undergraduates. Related to this is the role of further education colleges. Their higher education students, too, come from a broader range of social backgrounds than the entrants to most of the older universities, partly because they mainly serve their local communities. In Scotland, they provide a quarter of all higher education places, double the proportion in the rest of the UK. And yet the potential for expanding some of the FE colleges to become agents of social change for higher education is barely touched on. Neither, therefore, is there a discussion of the undoubted difficulties which fulfilling such a role would entail.

While the proposal on fees and loans dominated the discussion of Dearing, the other high-profile recommendation from Garrick was on developing a three-year general degree, the third main point of significance for Scotland. In the mostly disappointing and poorly argued Garrick report, this was the weakest aspect. The discussion of it is dominated by the flow charts and ladder diagrams that educational bureaucrats love. But the assessment of the proposal does not seem to have been underpinned by any relevant research on whether students would want it, by any adequate analysis of the costs, or by any rigorous consideration of the educational rationale.

On student demand, the committee notes that the shift to honours degrees in the past three decades has come about by student choice. Yet it does not show that these choices can be turned around. Three-year general degrees may or may not be more attractive to employers (and therefore students) than honours degrees. If they are, then what is the rationale for not having equally widespread general degrees elsewhere in the UK, too?On the other hand, if honours degrees continue to be preferred by employers, then students would be daft not to attempt them.

On costs, the committee seems to have overlooked the point that a fall in the proportion of students taking longer degrees will cause Scottish institutions to contract unless overall participation expands more rapidly than the report forecasts. What are the implications of that, for research,for overheads and for accommodation - indeed, for breadth itself, in the sense of courses which staff are qualified to offer?

Most fundamental of all, Garrick merely asserts that the "breadth" of a general degree is worth while, and merely assumes that it is sufficient in itself to give students an intellectually valid experience. The report contains none of the discussion of breadth that can be found in, for example, the Howie report or the Munn report. It shows no awareness that, in the Scottish tradition to which it rhetorically appeals, breadth was always supported by rigour offered through philosophy: that was what the "intellect" was about in the aspiration towards Scottish educational democracy. The same lack of attention to educational aims, moreover, excludes from the Garrick report any discussion of the relationship between vocational and academic study, another of the central Scottish traditions it invokes.

The day after the reports were published, we had the White Paper on a Scottish parliament, to which - if the referendum assents on September 11 - almost all matters relating to higher education in Scotland will be transferred. That parliament may not have the resources to return to full grants or to abolish fees. But it might well be interested in diversifying the structure of higher education in Scotland (for example, through the FE colleges), in promoting radically wider access, and in stimulating a national debate about the purpose of a democratic intellect in the next century. Garrick's report may offer some pointers in these respects, but it does no more than that.

Its most worthwhile impact, then, might be to start a debate that will eventually inform the deliberations of the new parliament.

Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at Moray House Institute of Education. He writes in a personal capacity.

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