Higher education did not become an election issue because the parties were content to leave it to Sir Ron Dearing who is deliberating about its future pattern. On his committee's report, due in the summer, attention will now focus. Incoming ministers will be forced to face up to the financial implications of whatever this "Robbins of the nineties" recommends. Advocates of shifting money to the early years of education will find themselves locked in argument with those who use the Dearing report to press the case for mass higher education.
Attention will inevitably focus on student support. Reluctance to face the electoral implications of finally dumping maintenance grants and opting for some form of pay-back scheme prompted the last Government, with Opposition backing, to set up the Dearing review. But the problem of financial support has to take second place to a debate about how many students we should be aiming to educate and to what level and where.
It is clear that just as society can no longer afford to maintain today's students in the way it did the elite of 20 and 30 years ago, so the nature of higher education is bound to change. The undue specialisation of honours degrees will be questioned, as will the need for four years in Scottish universities compared with three in the south. The student experience, especially for 18-year-olds, is as much about maturation as class work. How can it be maintained when only a minority of students can enjoy the facilities of, say, St Andrews and Stirling? Can the traditional liveliness of Glasgow, with its preponderance of students living at home, become the culture of the newer universities, and of FE colleges offering higher education components?
Scotland is well placed to see further HE expansion through FE rather than through yet more universities. The proposed University of the Highlands and Islands would be an extension of work done in the colleges forming its consortium. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council recommends a single council for the whole tertiary sector. From a traditionalist point of view, any new expansion of student numbers following the Dearing report is likely to look cut-price. But the country will have to measure what it can afford against what it would like.