Editorial: hot potatoes for the Dearing Committee

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
The Government (and probably the opposition) had hoped that the creation of the Dearing committee would postpone difficult decisions about the financing of higher education until after the general election. This week's strike in the older universities shows that the immediate crisis, born from a history of underfunding, cannot be easily set aside. Principals and vice-chancellors, who sympathise with the frustration of their staff, will be looking to the public expenditure statement next week for a measure of relief, that is, at least for relaxation of the year-on-year demands for further efficiency gains ie cuts. Speaking at a Scotcat conference on Dearing this week (page 26), Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, gave a hint that the Government is less deaf than usual to the pleas of higher education.

For Sir Ron Dearing the hottest potato by far is student funding. All political parties are happy not to have to take a final position until after the election because they realise that students will have to be asked to bear more of their maintenance costs and that none of the ideas in circulation, such as a graduate tax or a reformed loans system, would be popular with young voters. The even pricklier question of students' contributing to fees will also have to be tackled.

The last major review of higher education, the Robbins report of 1963, set out a fundamental principle, that there should be a place for all suitably qualified applicants. The Dearing committee will also have to examine the purpose of higher education now that it has expanded to provide for more than 30 per cent of school-leavers instead of fewer than 10 per cent. What should be the ultimate goal and how should it tie in with the Government's targets for training? Should expansion be the result only of improved school-leaver qualifications, as happened during the rapid expansion of the late eighties and early nineties? Or did the subsequent brake, applied because of Treasury pressure, signal the permanent end of an uncontrolled market? Will Dearing bring a return to dirigisme whatever the colour of the next Government?

Raw numbers aside, there is bound to be selectivity in allocating funds. Bernard King, principal of Abertay University, is aggrieved that almost all research funding goes to the older institutions while the wealth-creating initiatives of the former polytechnics and central institutions are ignored. Universities with long-established and expensive research centres would reply that money should not be spread too thinly and the expansion in the number of universities must lead to distinction in their roles, with some being funded mainly for undergraduate teaching.

Professor King and fellow principals of the newest institutions would not lay claim to the resources of Oxford, Cambridge or Edinburgh, but they see elitism as destructive rather than as recognition of the need to reward the current best. Sir Ron will have to wrestle with that, among many other dilemmas.

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