The Dearing and Garrick committees were born out of a financial and political panic which, unsurprisingly, features in some responses to their recommendations. The combination of the Iron Chancellor and the 40 per cent decline in public expenditure per student over the last 20 years as undergraduate numbers doubled left the committees with little choice but to embrace charging. It is perhaps more surprising that, while the Government may be commended for having grasped a nettle whose growth it had no part in, it should have done so with such enthusiasm.
There is little doubt that the higher education system is now being driven by financial realities and the demands of the market. Indeed, it is questionable whether "system" is an apt description any longer as education, training and research spin off into competing private think-tanks and even the workplace.
The question now is whether the system is being driven on the wrong side of the road and whether it is losing educational direction if, indeed, the money-changers are taking over the temple. Garrick notes that "as the cost of education to students increases, we predict there will be greater numbers of students seeking and gaining credit for entrance with advanced standing". And again: "Financial and other imperatives may also result in more students wishing to complete their studies faster. "
These are honest admissions about the nature of the foot on the accelerator. The danger is that educational decisions may be taken for financial reasons. It seems inevitable, for example, that the four-year honours degree cannot long survive a system of tuition charges geared to a three-year degree. The Treasury would not wear it. It may be that the right outcome may emerge for the wrong reasons: the three-year "ordinary" degree is every bit as much in the Scottish generalist tradition as the four-year honours course and fits more easily into school and college routes. But the case for change must be based on convincing educational argument, which should not go by default simply because of financial imperatives. The Garrick report - as befits the product of a committee - has fudged this particular issue and handed the Government another nettle.
Similarly, charging students is clearly finance-driven. Are there educational arguments for it? The litmus test must be whether students are deterred from applying for university as a result. There is no evidence that student growth has been affected, at least in Scotland; even in Australia, inspiration for the graduate tax, numbers seem to be holding up.
The Scottish system has the advantage of an FE sector that is notably active in higher education and which has proved attractive to those groups that might be thought most at risk from a charging regime. Garrick is generally good news for FE and schools, even if issues such as future funding arrangements and the relationship between Higher National courses and degrees have to be clarified.
At least this is not the end of the story as the Government embarks on a consultation exercise. Dearing and Garrick have done a remarkably thorough job in a short time, but, like Howie, it is the misfortune of such committees to have their proposals cherry-picked. We are now into the post-Garrick phase.