Dearing is crucial to the debate over devolution

18th July 1997 at 01:00
In the dog days of summer for Scottish pupils and parents, though not for parliamentarians, two reports are due to appear next week which will dominate educational and political debate for months, possibly years, to come. The Dearing committee's report is intended to be a "Robbins of the nineties" tackling the problem of providing for mass student populations in the fundamental way that 30 years ago the Robbins report matched qualifications to right of access to higher education. Two days later, if the timetable is adhered to, the White Paper on devolution will be published.

The first report will offer a gloss on the second. The Dearing findings will encompass those of a Scottish committee under Sir Ron Garrick which will discuss the future of the distinctive four-year degree and implications of UK changes for the already devolved structure of higher education. It will illustrate how more than one way of administering universities can exist within the kingdom, offering diversity and local control as well as inevitably creating some problems.

A few years ago when Scotland and Wales were given funding councils along with England, there were fears of parochialism and the loss of a "British" higher education system. University principals had held out against devolution in the seventies and eighties. No one now believes that funding decisions for, say, the three universities and colleges of Aberdeen should be taken in London. No one thinks that artificial barriers to scholarship have been erected at the border.

In one country the norm is for a three-year degree, in the other for four years. The funding arrangements for students may become controversial in the light of Sir Ron Dearing's recommendations, but the legacy of historic differences has not made university administration impossible or rendered institutions unviable.

Yet think if until now there had been uniformity instead of diversity and if Jack Straw, as the Cabinet's most influential devo-sceptic, were to be presented with ideas for potentially different degree structures because of a Scottish parliament. The objections to different abortion laws in the two countries would be as nothing compared with outrage at the unfeasibility.

Think, too, about the notorious second question in the forthcoming referendum. Variance in the tax regimes of Scotland and England would end civilised life as we know it, according to the Conservatives. Yet Scottish students (and their parents) have long contributed more for university education than their southern counterparts. Far from that having crippled Scottish institutions, English, Welsh and Northern Irish students flock to them with the result that with just 9 per cent of the UK population Scotland educates 15 per of its students.

Diversity works provided there is a demand for it. Overwhelmingly the Scottish people want a greater say in running their own affairs. The Secretary of State is right to ask people to keep the principle of devolution at the heart of the debate and not to be sidetracked by objections from those who magnify problems of detail into insuperable obstacles as a way of expressing their own fundamental opposition. The universities have shown for the last five years that devolution, loose ends and all, is no Gorgon.

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