Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dearing Report

I took a look, by way of reminder, at a copy of the Dearing Report, which has a lot in common with the Brown Review discussed previously. I reckon that you need to know about Dearing in order to write a sensible analysis of Browne, and understand the mess we're in and how we got there. They are both reports with recommendations on higher education funding that got commissioned by unpopular Governments shortly before an election that they duly lost. The Dearing Report got a lot of coverage and discussion in the Times Higher at the time, especially in the run-up to its publication in 1997. Reading it now, it seems terribly overtaken by events -- despite being written only about 15 years ago, it seems to address a situation a lifetime ago, when the basic assumptions about HE finance were totally different. It can be blamed for playing a part in the process of change and decay that it purported to manage. The underlying narrative of UK higher education funding over the past few decades, has been a path of least resistance. It has not been guided by principles; what has happened instead is that certain principles have been retro-fitted to the lazy decisions that have been made.

Dearing's report purported to set the HE funding scene for the next 20 years, but was in practice mainly in the business of short-term fixes rather than an attempt to settle the matter decisively. Its context was a decline in the unit of resource for teaching of about 40% over the previous 20-odd years, this decline having been billed an "efficiency gain". Universities (some of them) were making noises about charging top-up fees. The report concluded that the sector could manage a further 2% cut over the next 2 years, but the planned 6.5% cut would lead to a loss of quality. The report had some good stuff: a recognition that international competitiveness was important, and a recommendation that public spending on HE should increase in real terms by 1% a year. It broached the subject of income-contingent repayment of tuition costs, decided that a graduate tax is unworkable, and proposed a scheme for repaying 25% of a student's tuition costs. Obviously it's a shame we did not stick to that figure of 25%; it looks benign by present standards.

Some other stuff that caught my eye: It recommended a target of 45% participation in HE, which for some reason was rounded up to 50% by the subsequent Govt, but wasn't achieved. With regard to the short-term funding gap resulting from student loans coming from Govt, it recommended that national accounting rules should be changed so that the loans could be treated as a Govt asset.

Here's a point made by Dearing whose dread significance was probably not so very apparent at the time. The Dearing commission considered the question of the benefits to society arising from higher education, and concluded that the main beneficiaries are the graduates themselves, due to improved job opportunities. Not a very remarkable or surprising conclusion to reach, but it has allowed that aspect to crowd out all other considerations of the wider social benefit. Participation in HE has been reduced to an act of economic rationality, an act of selfishness.

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