Thoughts that led inevitably to fees

25th July 1997 at 01:00
Ask Sir Ron Dearing about his new report on the future of higher education and he will turn with pride to four short paragraphs.

They form a statement of principles, the broad philosophy intended to guide universities and colleges for the next 20 years.

"I found that the most fascinating part of the whole review," Sir Ron told The TES. "I have no idea how many times we fashioned and refashioned those early passages.

"We took the view that funding ought to be the handmaid of the policy, and what we ought to do was work out what we should fund and why. The objective was to enable the Government to take an informed, early decision."

The four principles were that higher education should:

* inspire people to develop to their highest potential;

* increase knowledge for its own sake;

* serve the needs of a fast-moving economy; and

* shape Britain's democratic society.

Those principles, hammered out over many hours, were fashioned, at least in part, from the answers that employers gave when asked what they wanted from the class of '97. According to Sir Ron, "employers wanted a strong capacity to think - to think strong and to think long".

Sir Ron obviously thought long and strong during his 14-month review of higher education. His 1,700-page report, which weighs in at 6.5kg, is the final act of a reformer who has reshaped the whole of the education system.As befits a man who lists his hobby as car boot sales, Sir Ron went in search of a deal offering value for money.

Celebrating his 67th birthday next week, Sir Ron has called it a day, vowing to devote his time to tending his vegetables rather than the nation's children.

He has bequeathed a set of proposals which will permanently change Britain's 1,000-year-old university system. His most contentious suggestion - to abolish the right to a free university education and charge students #163;1, 000 a year for course fees - emerged almost with an air of inevitability.

"We looked around at all the serious sources, but the one that stood out was the need to look at the contribution of graduates in work on an income-contingent basis that was affordable," he said. It was calculated that graduates could expect up to a 14 per cent return on their investment in a degree - taking into account student debts and loss of earnings over the three years of their course. They stood to gain, so they should be expected to pay.

Business, the recipient of highly trained labour pouring out of universities, was an obvious place to look for money, but Sir Ron said industry would not provide the investment needed for a world-class higher education system.

Instead, he said, business would have to provide for employees once they joined the fold. "The employers' main role is when people join them - and in keeping those people learning for life," he said. "If you are going to be real about this learning for life that's when employers have to pitch in.

"We could propose a tax but we have not recommended it. I believe enlightened self-interest is already happening. "

Fees for higher education would not replace the current public funding, Sir Ron said. That was an essential investment in education itself - vital for the economic health of the nation in a fast-changing world.

Funding issues did not lead the review, he said, rather the search for new sources of cash flowed from proposals for renewed expansion and development.

Further expansion in student numbers would be driven by demand both for traditional undergraduate degrees and for two-year courses, the bulk of which would be based in colleges of further education. Dearing wants to increase the proportion of young people on higher education courses from 32 per cent to 45 per cent, with most of the new students studying for higher national certificates and diplomas. This would satisfy pent-up demand for people with university-level qualifications, but not full-blown degrees.

"We think there is demand from employers for that sort of qualification, and in Scotland there has already been massive demand.

"I'm not saying there's a pool of limited ability. I'm just an ordinary Joe and think a proportion of students will be able to go for an HND or HNC and then go on."

Sir Ron is anxious to create a system in which people can get credit for higher education courses that do not lead to a degree. At the same time, universities and colleges should bring more people back into education, and be paid to do it.

Skills fundamental to the modern age would be written into degrees or other higher-level courses, giving students a grounding in the technology, communication and study skills employers demand.

Sir Ron believes the key to it all is a new compact between education, individuals and the state.

Young people would be expected to invest in their own education. In return they could expect the highest standards of teaching and qualification. The emphasis on standards, backed by the new Quality Assessment Agency, would bring the traditional role of external examiners into the age of mass higher education.

At the same time colleges and universities would have to spell out what their courses offered, and what a student or employer could expect. Lecturers would have to train, and register with an Institute of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education to ensure standards were maintained.

"There are two big issues in higher education," said Sir Ron, "funding and standards.

"We have had a go at standards, and it isn't easy. Young people are making a big investment in going into higher education, and it might be a much bigger investment in the future. They are entitled to a reliable education which is respected in the marketplace."

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