The Dearing committee has been in Scotland this week learning about the distinctive nature of higher education. Not that Sir Ron Dearing in particular needs reminding that things are different north of the border: he used Scottish experience to colour his recommendations to the Government on educating 16 to 19-year-olds. His new committee has a Scottish subset chaired by Ron Garrick which no doubt makes every effort to ensure that the main group understands acronyms like SHEFC and concepts like Higher Still.
Although Scottish higher education enjoys greater autonomy than when the last major review took place, the Robbins committee made its recommendations in a climate of sixties expansion. How the four, later eight, Scottish universities saw their role was left to them within the relatively generous financial framework of the University Grants Committee and conforming to the Robbins doctrine that higher education should be available to all qualified to benefit from it (a goal closer to Scottish than Oxbridge hearts).
Dearing is operating within narrower limits. If there is to be further expansion of student numbers following the flood in the early 1990s, it will not be dramatic and may be delayed. Tough decisions still to be made about fees and maintenance indicate the harsher climate in which the next Government will receive the committee's recommendations. Therefore despite the political state of Scotland and the successful administrative devolution of higher education, there is defensiveness about what Dearing will say. The universities and colleges point to their contribution to the economy as well as to student numbers, but they are concerned that Dearing will take a Treasury view, namely that students in Scotland are treated more generously.
The Secretary of State, who makes political capital out of local government spending comparisons, is keen none the less to defend the cost of the four-year honours degree, which constitutes the main difference between the university systems across the border. The Higher Still programme as interpreted by the universities will still mean first-year courses starting below A-level standard. Fewer than 10 per cent of students are likely to be using Advanced Highers to matriculate.
But the Dearing committee will have noticed a breaking of the ranks. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities does not set great store by preserving the four-year degree. Its members are under desperate financial pressure. They could do with a readjustment in educational spending, with more directed to the school sector. But will they offer an opportunity for Dearing to decry the four-year degree and point to Scottish indifference? That is the fear of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, which like Cosla gave evidence yesterday (Thursday). The Dearing committee may be unimpressed by arguments about the effects of Higher Still, which is being introduced, after all, to answer the problem of the ineffective Scottish sixth year and lack of use of the Certificate of Sixth year Studies for university entrance.
But Dearing should listen carefully to two aspects. The first is the general point that England is (as usual) out of educational step with the rest of the western world in having three-year degrees. The second is that our universities have belatedly recognised the value of promoting general three-year degrees as well as traditional four-year honours courses. If the general degree can be given greater esteem and not be seen as compensating for inability to achieve honours (an English concept), then it would offer students genuine choice.
That would go some way to answering the criticism that our students have to face four years' bills, and to offering the diversity of opportunities which a system of mass higher education will need in the next century.