1 We were appointed with bipartisan support by the Secretaries of State for Education and Employment, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland on 10 May 1996 to make recommendations on how the purposes, shape, structure, size and funding of higher education, including support for students, should develop to meet the needs of the United Kingdom over the next 20 years, recognising that higher education embraces teaching, learning, scholarship and research. We were asked to report by the summer of 1997. Our full terms of reference are set out on pages 3 and 4.

2 We now submit our report. In doing so, we thank those who were members of the working groups we created to study and advise on particular issues, and in particular the members of our Scottish Committee, whose advice to us is published as part of our report. We are indebted to all those who gave evidence, both oral and written. We are grateful to those in higher education in this country and in the countries we visited for being so open with us as we sought to inform ourselves and develop policies for the future. Most of all we are indebted to our secretariat and in particular to our secretary, Shirley Trundle, who served us with distinction and far beyond the call of duty. We were indeed fortunate in having such a team.

3 I am personally much indebted to all my colleagues on the Committee, of whom I asked far more than they can have envisaged when they agreed to join it. This report is very much the work of all of us.

4 We begin by setting out our vision for higher education over the next 20 years. This vision is central to our report, and the other chapters are founded on it: our recommendations are designed to enable this vision to become a reality. After briefly outlining the approach we took to our work, we then describe the current state of higher education and the wider economic and social context in which it is now operating. Taking all of this into account, we then set out our view of what the aims and purposes of higher education should be. After this introductory material, we examine the demand for higher education in the United Kingdom, in terms of its level and distribution between different groups in the population and the needs of students. This is followed by a group of chapters in which we consider the main business of higher education institutions: the delivery and content of programmes; standards and the framework of awards; research; and the particular local and regional role of institutions. In the subsequent group of chapters we review staffing and staff development, particularly in relation to teaching; the growing implications of communications and information technology; the way institutions are organised, managed and governed; and the characteristics which differentiate institutions. We then examine the funding needs of institutions, the sources of funding, and what structures and mechanisms should exist for channelling funds to institutions, a graduate contribution and arrangements for supporting students. We end with a discussion of the relationship between Government and higher education, including special features in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and of the immediate priorities for action.

5 Our report is supported by a range of annexes and appendices, with the first annex containing a list of our recommendations.

An introductory comment

6 We were appointed to advise on the long term development of higher education. But we express here our concern that the long term wellbeing of higher education should not be damaged by the needs of the short-term.

7 We are particularly concerned about planned further reductions in the unit of funding for higher education. If these are carried forward, it would have been halved in 25 years. We believe that this would damage both the quality and effectiveness of higher education. We are also concerned about some other immediate needs, especially in relation to research.

8 We recognise the need for new sources of finance for higher education to respond to these problems and to provide for growth. We therefore recommend that students enter into an obligation to make contributions to the cost of their higher education once they are in work. Inescapably these contributions lie in the future. But there are pressing needs which we identify in the Report in the years 1998/99 and 1999/2000. We urge the Government to respond to these in its decisions on funding, by giving credit for the full value embedded in the commitments given by students to provide for their education. The present public expenditure and accounting practice does not provide for this: it therefore fails to recognise value that is properly recognised in normal commercial accounts, and leads to costly arrangements for securing that value by sale of the loan book, which can be ill afforded.

9 Much of our report is concerned with material things and with the central role of higher education in the economy. It would be surprising were it not so. But throughout we have kept in mind the values that characterise higher education and which are fundamental to any understanding of it. They were well expressed by John Masefield in an address at the University of Sheffield in 1946. Speaking of a university, he said, as we would now say of higher education as a whole:

‘It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning and will exact standards in these things.’

10 It must continue to be so.
Ron Dearing