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Tomorrow's students

The Dearing solution can safely be relied on to bring a huge collective sigh of relief from assorted politicians and interested parties caught on perilous hooks.

And that is just the decision to call him in. However intractable the problem, once it is tossed into Sir Ron's safe pair of hands we can be sure of a year or two of relative calm as conflict gives way to consultation, and politicians thankfully succumb to policy-making by proxy. By the time Sir Ron Dearing has reported with his own solution - a briskly-stirred elixir of analysis, logic, commonsense and compromise - all participants have been led inexorably to solutions they knew in their hearts were right, but hadn't dared to say so.

Gillian Shephard has called in Sir Ron Dearing to review higher education, with special reference to student support, because the vice-chancellors had forced her to confront a funding crisis which the Government didn't want to resolve before the general election. David Blunkett has gone along with it because the report is due after that election, but also because the Labour party too has been paralysed into policy constipation by fear of dropping the principle of free higher education. And just when the Lib Dems dared to drop that principle, and commit themselves to ideas like a graduate tax and learning accounts that their opponents embrace only in private, they are overtaken by the announcement.

Paddy Ashdown's higher education policy shift has found favour in the universities because it tackles the central issue of student support now, rather than postponing it for another year, but there is nevertheless a strong case for looking at size, shape and structure before deciding how to fund more expansion.

Like so much else in education, it started with Kenneth Baker, who as Secretary of State a decade ago (and without much reference to the Treasury) looked forward to one in three young people embracing the student life by the end of the century. His junior minister, Robert Jackson, predicted a sea-change as the younger generation stopped thinking of universities as for other people and, like Americans, saw it as their birthright. He turned out to be more or less right.

So a raft of questions lands on Sir Ron's next agenda. Given that under the next Government the spending priority will be nursery and primary rather than higher education, can numbers go on increasing? The Confederation of British Industry reckons the economy needs a still higher proportion of graduates, and the national education and training targets assume that more will be qualified for higher education by 2000. Dearing's great predecessor, the Robbins Report, heralded a massive university expansion for young people so qualified in l963. Sir Ron will have harder decisions to make.

Our graduate output already compares very favourably with our European partners. Where we lag dangerously behind is in the supply of intermediate and craft qualifications, the vocational areas in which the further education colleges specialise. It is not yet clear how far Sir Ron will stray into further education, beyond the sections which deal specifically in degrees, though arguably the FE sector is in even greater need of definition of its shape, structure, size and purpose. Certainly it could be a grievously missed opportunity if he looked at university student support in isolation from equally pressing needs among FE students.

One of the factors is whether students are living at home. Should it become the norm to attend the neighbourhood university, except for specialist or prestige reasons? Should it be acknowledged that this would take us more firmly into a tiered system? Is there a case for more vocational and skills-based degrees, as opposed to intermediate, or level 3, qualifications? And what are the pros and cons for either two-year or four-year degree courses?

Almost everything in Sir Ron's terms of reference has immense implications for schools. If higher education's course is to be set for the next 20 years, it is the current generation of schoolchildren who will be most affected, including those for whom a nursery voucher will be the first step on the way. That makes it especially important that Sir Ron listens to school heads and teachers during his consultations and that they are represented on the committee of inquiry which is to be set up.

Both the Committee of Vice-chancellors and Principals and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service have been grudging about schools' representation, a manifestation of their inflexibility on an admissions system that ought to suit the students and the schools, rather than just the academics; it is such attitudes that only Sir Ron seems able to tackle.

The last question is whether, having completed a trio of seminal reports on the school curriculum, the 16 to 19 qualifications framework and higher education, Sir Ron - or some other saint - will have to start all over again. For both curriculum and examinations have been shaped by top-down pressures from the universities as they currently exist. If he has radical proposals on HE, that could make a difference when his slimmed-down curriculum is next reviewed, although his 16 to 19 proposals could yet prove to be the missing piece in the jigsaw. In any event, what an unrivalled overview he will have.

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