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What did Dearing ever do for us? Twenty years of the ‘learning society’

The Dearing Inquiry, though often remembered for introducing tuition fees, did so much more than we usually remember. Rhiannon Birch looks back on this important HE anniversary.
This article is more than 7 years old

Rhiannon Birch is Director of Strategic Insights and Planning at the University of Derby.

July 2017 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Dearing Report. A report of great physical stature (nine volumes, 1,500 pages weighing over 2kgs in hard copy) the report was the culmination of fourteen months of intense work by the National Committee, Scottish Committee and working groups.

Dearing was conducted in the shadow of the Robbins Inquiry, trying to find policy solutions to the consequences of Robbins’ legacy of university expansion. It was a fix to a tricky political situation, but its contribution to the development of the UK higher education system is under-appreciated and often ignored.

In 1996 a storm was brewing in higher education. The binary policy ended in 1992 and had created a new unitary higher education system, but discrepancies remained between the pre and post-1992 universities.

Unplanned and unanticipated increases in student numbers at the same time as a significant reduction in the Unit of Resource led to a government-imposed Maximum Student Number (MaSN). The MaSN arrested the rate of increase in student numbers but could not address the core funding problem. The higher education system was characterised by high workloads and low morale, with staff often working in a dated and dilapidated estate which reflected years of under-investment.

Feeling the pinch, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK) threatened to charge top-up fees of £300 per student for the 1997-98 academic year.

The Dearing Inquiry was the government’s response to the political turmoil. Established by outgoing Education Secretary Gillian Shepherd with bipartisan support, the Committee was asked to make long-term recommendations on the purposes, shape, structure, size and funding of higher education, including support for students across teaching, learning, scholarship and research.

The Inquiry had a short deadline to complete its work (in comparison to Robbins, which took thirty-two months) and its Report was published following the landslide Labour Party victory in June.

So, what did Dearing really do for UK higher education?

Most memorably, Dearing established the principle that graduates should contribute to the costs of the education through tuition fees. Not surprisingly, given the wider financial pressures on the sector at the time, the fees recommendation received significant media coverage as a solution. But student fees had been considered periodically by governments since the 1980s, most recently by Ken Clarke in 1991.

Dearing enabled the government to make the breakthrough on tuition fees. It proposed a new funding regime which was aligned with the philosophy that market regulation was the most effective way to ensure efficiency and quality. This endorsed the emerging view of higher education as a private rather than a social good.

But Dearing did a lot more than just recommend fees. The ninety-two other recommendations were wide ranging. Designed as a coherent package, the breadth of the recommendations was intended to establish a lifelong learning culture; the ‘Dearing Compact’. This was an umbrella concept developed late in the Inquiry which envisaged a new partnership between students, providers, government, and society, based on clear obligations which would maximise contributions to and benefits from higher education.

Dearing promoted widening participation, advocated the use of IT for new styles of learning, and recommended that courses should improve students’ employability. The report identified questions which have been reconsidered since, such as student progress files, a post-qualifications admissions system, and the suggestion that teaching staff should be required to hold a teaching qualification.

On research, the recommendations shaped the Research Assessment Exercise (now REF) by proposing it take account of interdisciplinarity and include international representation on RAE panels. The Inquiry proposed the establishment of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and also a high-level independent body which would set national policy for public funding of research in higher education, something like the newly established UKRI.

Finally, Dearing provided the foundation for a unitary higher education system. The recommendations on institutional governance, planning, and strategy development proposed greater consistency between the pre- and post-1992 institutions. It set an agenda for then-newly established buffer bodies, including HEFCE and the QAA, which nurtured a nascent culture of managerialism, regulation, and audit. This heightened universities’ public accountability and government’s influence on them.

While the contemporary commentary focused on the Inquiry’s treatment of specific issues – most of all fees – Dearing’s implicit larger purpose was to equip higher education with the architecture for a post-binary mass phase of development.

The Dearing Report quickly became shelf ware. It was described it as “…of most use in the long term to PhD students who will use it as a primary source on the state of British Higher Education, and modish debates about it, in the final years of the twentieth century” (Williams, 1998). As a PhD student also working in higher education, I’d challenge this assessment. Dearing may not loom as large as Robbins in the sector’s collective memory but, it had a significant impact on UK higher education, and can be credited with quietly shaping the foundation for the mass higher education system we work in today.

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