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Dearing in the House – twenty years on

It was twenty years ago, yesterday. Wonkhe's David Kernohan looks back to the way Lord Dearing's Report was received, and finds some surprisingly familiar names with some decidedly unfamiliar policy positions.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

It was twenty years ago, yesterday. But the echoes of the response to Dearing that we can see in the politics of today offer us a curious perspective – in some respects very little has changed, in others everything has.

On the 23rd July 1997, it was David Blunkett who got to launch the Dearing Report, commissioned under the Major administration and an exercise with broad cross-party support. The so-called Dearing Report was – as Rhiannon Birch wrote on Wonkhe earlier this month – a collection of immensely detailed and diligently prepared reports: a 64-page main report with five appendices,  alongside 14 working group reports and a separate report on the Scottish system of higher education.

But Blunkett’s statement focused almost entirely on one aspect – top-up fees. This had been a live issue before the report as several institutions had floated plans to independently levy additional fees directly to students to supplement a unit of resource that had shrunk steadily under successive Conservative governments. Funding began to grow a little after the 1992 Act, but not enough to please some VCs. The parliamentary briefing for the statement has a very useful history section that helpfully summarises a lot of this frequently-ignored background.

Blunkett reminded Parliament of the crisis higher education was in, and why the report was commissioned on a cross-party basis: “Everybody recognised that our higher education system was in dire need of attention. It has faced both funding problems and huge anomalies.”

It was Dearing that made the recommendation that set the fees ball rolling in response to this perception. But he also recommended that fees should be seen alongside a continuation of student grants – Labour accepted only one-half of this package, a decision which had led to the partisanship that characterises student finance debates to this day. The BBC coverage at the time reflected the way in which this issue dominated the debate.

Lord Blunkett still weighs in on higher education issues in the Lords twenty years on, and many others that are more prominent today played a small part in this epochal moment of education policy. For example, Professor Michael Barber had recently become Chair of the Key Standards and Effectiveness unit in the Department for Education and Employment under David Blunkett.

And Andrew Adonis had just been appointed constitutional and educational policy adviser at number 10, after a concentrated period of political activism for Labour – in Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington.

Jo Johnson? He was writing for the Financial Times. The paper had an interesting angle for their pre-release report on Dearing on 23rd July, teasing that: “Ministers are to be asked to clamp down on the creation of universities because of fears that the quality of higher education is being threatened by the rising number of degree-awarding institutions.”

The main response to Blunkett’s statement came from Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Dorrell, but Bill Rammell – now VC of the University of Bedfordshire – highlighted the Labour squeamishness around discretionary institutional top-up fees that the new £1,000 loan-backed price point was meant to avoid. He said, “I hope that we intend to stop universities charging top-up tuition fees and that we shall explore legislation to ensure that that does not happen.” – perhaps the source of that manifesto commitment.

The debate after the statement was short, and there was little time to probe many of the other issues raised by Dearing. Phil Willis (now Lord Willis of Knaresborough) raised the issue of what became the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, a body that boasted Lord Dearing himself as an early patron. The ILTHE eventually became a part of the Higher Education Academy following the 2003 White Paper, just as the Academy will become a part of a new body as a consequence of the Bell Review.

In one of his very first Parliamentary contributions, one Gordon Marsden raised the issue support for students facing financial hardship. “May I ask specifically what consideration [the Minister] has given and what proposals he currently has to give extra help to those who are already facing hardship within the maintenance system?”

Marsden actually made his maiden speech during an Opposition Day on Student Finance in November 1997. As a former Open University lecturer, he raised the plight of part time students: “The Opposition speak of maintenance grants, but it takes some cheek to defend a system that they progressively devalued and cut away during their period in office. In any case, it is not a system that ever benefited all students. One of the fastest-growing areas in the past few years, as Dearing has said, is that of part-time students. For them, a maintenance grant, even tutorial fee support, was never an option.”

The wider debate was by now firmly fixated on the fees issue that has dominated HE policy in parliament ever since. The Member for Maidenhead, Theresa May, saw fit to weigh in in the interests of her constituents. “There is real concern that the Government’s decision not to follow Dearing’s proposal to introduce tuition fees while maintaining the maintenance grant, but rather to abolish the maintenance grant and replace it with loans will, far from widening access, narrow it.”

You’d expect both parties to be split on the issue, and you would be correct. It was more a battle between the economic pragmatists (and those with higher education interests) and the social reformers who wished to support access to university from disadvantaged groups. What is interesting is how individuals have moved (or not!) between the two positions.

The following year Labour began the legislative process that would lead to the Teaching and Higher Education Act. The Second Reading in the House of Commons saw a memorable contribution from Diane Abbott:

“The problem with the Government’s proposals—Ministers wring their hands and say that they have to make the proposals—is that they will prove to be a disincentive to students from lower-income backgrounds and from ethnic minorities, and they will not generate the funds required to make good the damage—which Labour Members have mentioned in this debate—that the Tories wrought in higher education in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly because the fees will not be completely ring fenced.

Why are we in a situation in which intelligent men and women are trying to pretend that black is white—that somehow loading working-class students with debt will provide them with an incentive to enter higher education? We are in this situation because we talked to the British electorate last year, and we offered them a snare and a delusion—the delusion that one can have real step change in social provision without raising taxation.”

Powerful stuff – even Oliver Letwin was moved to comment on the “passionate eloquence” of her words. As may be imagined, serial rebel Jeremy Corbyn made a similar point during the same debate.

But let us give the last word to David Willetts. In the years since, he has become respected first as one of our most able higher education ministers, and latterly (as Lord Willetts) as one of a growing set of knowledgeable and thoughtful Lords on issues relating to universities. He also spoke in the same debate, and – surprisingly – made similar arguments to Abbott and Corbyn.

“No amount of attacks on our record or on whether we should have expanded education more or put ever more money into it will get round those simple facts about the burden of debt which people from low-income families will face as a result of the Government’s proposals.”

One response to “Dearing in the House – twenty years on

  1. David Blunkett’s diaries have some interesting comments throughout 1997 on the £1,000 fee decision and the year end grant letters to HEFCE and FEFC shed some light on the public spending decisions. The decision to introduce fees while replacing maintenance grants with loans released something like £130 million for DFES in 1998-99 which was distributed for various areas (FE as well as HE). The backdrop for this was Gordon Brown’s insistence that the Labour government stick to Conservative spending plans between 1997 and 1999.

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