Crusade is the biggest so far for Sir Ron
The politicians who enthusiastically embraced Sir Ron's desire to tackle the third sector of education before he retires must appreciate what a Pandora's box he is opening, but that realisation is not widely spread. The general consensus is that he is helping the Government and Labour across a tricky financial chasm which, tackled by either party pre-election, could frighten those sensitive middle-class voters.
But that same electorate is likely to be stunned when the deliberations of Sir Ron and his National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education finally emerge sometime next summer. Whether students should finance their living costs, or even pay fees as some universities are demanding, is only part of the review. Questions being asked by the committee are as fundamental as: should universities be public institutions? What is a degree? What is a graduate? What is it all for? What should it all be for?
Under the circumstances, it is unsurprising that Sir Ron and his committee have collectively agreed to voice no public opinions while the review is under way, thus giving them carte blanche to think the unthinkable in a reasoned manner. "There are no sacred cows. Everything is being debated," he says.
As chairman, Sir Ron scrupulously observes the rules but cannot avoid giving the odd impression of areas which particularly interest him or opinions which he holds.
Lifelong learning appears likely to be an important part of the debate, as does the changing nature of society and employment, and the uses to which new technology can be put in teaching and learning.
"In 20 years' time - and I'm totally speculating here - I think it's inescapable that there will be much more involvement with lifetime learning and information technology and multimedia." He already knew of one university which had put a chemistry course on the Internet, he said, where it had been followed by some 300 people, leading him to anticipate a more international way of looking at things as well. That does not appear to mean that the Dearing view of higher education will be purely utilitarian, however: "I don't see education for education's sake as an old-fashioned notion."
It is clear that this may be the biggest crusade yet for Sir Ron. The notion of higher education has been left largely unexamined for the past 30 years, since the Robbins report, although universities and indeed society have changed dramatically.
Back in 1963, just 3-5 per cent of 18-year-olds went to university. Now it is around 30 per cent, with vast part-time participation and many more women.
Accordingly, the committee's first task and a major question of the consultation is to establish the purpose of higher education 20 years hence. Will it be the same as the four Robbins purposes, which included the desire to transmit cultural values? For many students now, a university degree is the first step into the rat race of employment. "Vice-chancellors have told me how hard undergraduates now work, compared with 30 years ago, and I've heard that several times. Maybe 30 years ago to have a degree was to get a job. Now to have a degree is to get an interview for a job. It can be very competitive, especially if you want to get one of the plum employers."
So far the committee, including Sir Geoffrey Holland, vice-chancellor of Exeter University, Sir William Stubbs, retiring chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde (former print union leader Brenda Dean) and Pamela Morris, head of the Blue School in Wells, has met four times.
They will deliberate on funding, governance and structure en masse but divide into six groups to talk about matters such as economics, resources, research, teaching and quality, standards and information technology. A wider consultation, including questionnaires for schools and industry, is just beginning.
Sir Ron is combining a long-planned holiday to Australia with a fact-finding mission on its higher education system: interestingly, Austudy, the much-vaunted repayable grants system, is under some threat in the country's forthcoming budget, following a change of government.
He has already completed the committee's only other investigation of a foreign system so far, that of Japan - again, he points out, part of a previously-planned British Council lecture tour.
He is clearly fascinated by what he found in Japan, where three-quarters of the four million students are educated in private universities. "I was interested in finding out the scale of participation. There is tremendous diversity," he said. Competition to get into the prestigious state and private institutions is fierce, and students then pay tuition fees - around Pounds 4,375 a year - as well as finding their own money to live on. A loan system, Studentaid, exists - but it is used only by some 340,000 students.
Another part of the Japanese system is two-year college courses leading to associate degree level. Sir Ron is also interested in the Japanese and Australian provision for technical education - a two year course is provided in both countries, where Japanese entrants tend to be 18 but increasing numbers of Australian students are joining at post-graduate level. If adopted here, such a system would please critics who argue that Britain is currently not training master technicians.
While Sir Ron emphasises that British higher education enjoys an enviable reputation in Japan, he is at pains to say that different systems may not be universally interchangeable. "The Japanese system derives a good deal from the American, whereas that of Australia and New Zealand is more influenced by the English and Scottish."
Whatever the committee recommends, Sir Ron is confident that it will be taken seriously by whichever government is in power next summer. "It was almost a joint referral by Labour and the Conservatives. It was Gillian's [Shephard] initiative but she consulted on the membership of the committee and [David] Blunkett stood up in the House and welcomed it. So I think there's something of a political consensus and this is desirable."