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Not so endearing

Lord Ron Dearing wrote the blueprint for restructuring higher education in Britain. Two years on, he talkedto Jennie Bristow about graduate shelf-stackers and other virtues of the new university system

Is Oxford better than the University of East London? Lord Ron Dearing merely shrugs. 'It's different. Oxford is outstanding and a former poly can be outstanding in its own distinctive contribution, so I wouldn't like to rank them.'

This from the man responsible for restructuring British higher education, through the 1997 Dearing report. From the local FE college to the top university, from Classics to Golf, from full-time courses to part-time distance learning, no aspect of post-compulsory education is to be considered better than any other. Training the mind and training for work are 'different but equal' skills, differentiated only by the extent to which they increase your flexibility as an employee - and give you, the student consumer, value for money.

'How long is it since you left university?' asks Lord Dearing. I graduated in 1997: the year when his committee published the results of its inquiry, Higher Education in the Learning Society. 'So you escaped me.' Only just. When I began my degree, the higher education system had just realised what a mess it was in. Following an aggressive expansion policy pursued by the Tory government, numbers had rocketed and funding had plummeted. Polytechnics had transformed themselves into universities overnight, and an uncertain academia watched as grade requirements for entry to university fell and increasing numbers of students graduated with good degrees, at least on paper.

Lord Dearing was brought in to sort it out. For two years he headed an inquiry into British higher education, which became the ten-volume Dearing report. This justified the expansion of HE that had already taken place, and laid down the blueprint for universities of the future.

Post-Dearing, the student has become a fully-fledged 'consumer' of higher education. From the introduction of tuition fees to the emphasis on 'diversity' and 'student choice', higher education became something individuals could buy for their own amusement or self-improvement. 'The beneficiary', says Lord Dearing, 'is, on average, the student'. But what is the student a beneficiary of, exactly?

The expansion of HE has led to a dizzying array of options facing the prospective student, as every university struggles to attract its own niche market. You can do a degree or Higher National Diploma, full-time or part-time, anywhere from your local further education college to a traditional university. At Thames Valley University you can choose between Hospitality Management with Tourism and Tourism with Hospitality Management, and at Middlesex University you can do a degree in everything from Law to Work-Based Learning Studies. The 1999 handbook for the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) - every sixth former's bible - lists, according to my calculations, about 300 higher education institutions and over 50 000 courses.

Lord Dearing loves this plethora of choice. 'Vive la différence!' he exclaims. 'If the student is a gifted linguist, musician, mathematician, go for full-time university. But there are people like me who say to themselves, it's very interesting but how can I use it? If you're a practically minded person then a vocational-orientated programme allied to work is excellent.'

Fair enough - but the choice between an academic and vocational programme of study existed for years, through the binary system of polytechnics and universities. Lord Dearing's constant emphasis on choice only disguises the extent to which the Dearing report, and all that followed it, was a fudge. With the focus on providing more courses for more students, it is easy to avoid analysing how good those courses are. And as long as you bang on about choice, you can hide the fact that many of those involved in higher education have fewer real options than ever before.

For a start, it is harder for young people to choose not to continue their education. By the early 1990s, 70 percent of 16-18 year olds were in full-time education, compared to fewer than 50 percent in the mid-1980s (Social Exclusion Unit, 1999). One third of young people are currently in higher education, and government targets aim for 35 percent of 18-21 year olds to be in HE by 2002. If young people escape HE in the early years, the lifelong learning bandwagon will soon pull them back in: already, one third of students entering HE are over 21 (UCAS handbook, 1999). As Emma, a 17-year old A-level student, pointed out: 'It just seems that going to university is expected. It's the continuum of education, just like A-levels are expected after GCSEs.' Just like HNDs are expected after GNVQs, or Access courses are expected after a decade in the workplace.

But for Lord Dearing, all this is a jolly good thing. What about the view of Professor Graham Zellick, vice-chancellor of the University of London, that HE has become a way of keeping young people off the dole? Dearing splutters with indignation. 'That's nonsense! Unless we invest in our people more and more will be on the dole, because we won't have the effectiveness in industry we need.' He recounts a recent conversation with an employer in the Midlands. 'In America, where they employ so many more graduates, the graduate will load the lorry, he will stack the goods, he will then do management accounting, he can deal with customers direct - he's much more versatile. Employers are looking for the trained mind.' Whether you need a 'trained mind' to load lorries or stack shelves is apparently beyond question - Lord Dearing would only be keen to provide the kind of sandwich year course that would allow students to gain practical work experience, while studying for their degree in Lorry Loading with Accounting.

Lord Dearing's vision of the future of higher education is so pragmatic it sounds like common sense. To him, the notion that everybody should have some higher education is taken as given; and beyond that the only considerations are how to keep them happy and employable. But what do these things mean for the pursuit of knowledge and the development of intellect - high-sounding phrases which were once seen as the primary purpose of higher education?

For all the 'choices' offered by HE today, and for all Lord Dearing proclaims the freedom of students to take whatever option is best for them, when push comes to shove he clearly does not think it matters much where they go or what they do. According to Making the Right Choice, a recent report produced for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), financial considerations mean that 48 percent of prospective students under 21 are considering applying to a university closer to home than they might otherwise have, and 29 percent are prepared to live at home. Does this matter? Again, he shrugs. 'The communities need their able young people to stay with them. If you take an area that has high unemployment and young people go away to university, there's a much higher risk that they won't come back than if they go to their local university.'

This represents a shift towards the American-style system of HE, where young people attend community colleges in their droves, and only the lucky (very) few go away to Ivy League universities like Harvard or Yale. Indeed, Lord Dearing is keen to stress the 'odd' character of Britain's tradition of studying away from home, when contrasted to Europe and America. But this oddness used to be considered one of the better features of British HE. Moving away was about students motivated by their chosen specialisation going to an institution with a reputation for that subject. But more importantly, it was the key to the freedom and independence seen as vital contributions to students' development, intellectually and otherwise. Studying was something done outside of the ties of family and old friends, and the constraints of financial survival.

Now, everything about higher education is about pulling students back into these ties and constraints. Making the Right Choice shows that 71 percent of students were prepared to work during term-time, and 96 percent during the holidays, meshing the hassles of everyday survival with the process of study. If these students are also spending a large proportion of time at home, carrying on in the groove they scraped out at school, it is impossible to imagine that studying at university could really change their lives. Meanwhile, the British version of the Ivy League, to which a few students do escape, is treated with suspicion and nagged to bring its ivory towers further down to earth.

Even if you are one of Lord Dearing's 'gifted linguists, musicians or mathematicians' and you choose the academic route that you think is best, the experience you will get at university could be less challenging and exciting than you may expect. 'Britain needs universities with research departments of world standards for the sake of the quality of education as a whole, because it infuses', he enthuses. But it is difficult to see what research Dearing-style will 'infuse' anything with. Under his drive to improve 'standards', universities will have their degree criteria laid out for them, depriving academics of their cherished autonomy; and as money is channelled into a few selective research departments, the rest of academia will be herded off to the Institute of Learning and Teaching (ILT) to be taught how to teach the basics. 'The ILT has very strong support from the students' union', boasts Lord Dearing. Quite - the students' union has always been the most philistine force on campus.

In Lord Dearing's vision of higher education, choice, skills, employment, participation, flexibility and standards are of crucial importance. What never seems to feature is the importance of ideas. All that matters in the 'learning society' is that everybody is included, that everybody gets value for money, and that Britain can keep up with the Joneses on the world scale when it comes to well-qualified lorry-loaders. The notion that people can, through education, be inspired with ideas beyond the immediate pressures of employment and living, is seen as a frivolous luxury that we neither need nor can afford. And so the student consumer will have all their choices - except for this one.

'We need to create a new culture, a new society, new values for us all', says Lord Dearing. Maybe we do - but not on these lines.

For more articles and links on higher education, go to

Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999



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