Dearing passing into history

The Dearing Report into Higher Education is now older than new students in our universities.  Established in May 1996, the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education reported in 1997.  A comprehensive report, it covered most aspects of higher education and dealt with all parts of the UK.  It was generally well received, although Martin Trow laid into it:

The Report does not show an intimate knowledge of the institutions about which it advises; it separates its discussions of finance from its comments on teaching and learning; it ignores the wide diversity of higher education institutions, subjects, and students in making its sweeping recommendations, and it does not recognise the limits of its own knowledge, nor make provision for the continuing improvement of the knowledge and understanding on which future policies for British higher education might be based. (Trow 1998)

9 years ago, it was clear that the Dearing settlement was holding well.  At the 10 year anniversary of the report in 2007, in articles, books and at a conference at The Institute of Education, it was clear that the bulk of the recommendations had been implemented. Some of which had taken a while (the Institute for Learning & Teaching in HE – which had morphed into the HEA) and some of which (the fees and loans scheme) were rejected in 1997 but then later formed the basis of the 2004 scheme.  But, 19 years after Dearing has its influence slipped away?  This is might be why…

The Compact

The Dearing committee was given the job of looking at higher education over the next 20 years, and it was clear that a key part of the immediate issue was funding.   What the report tried to do was shape the change they were suggesting (that students pay fees) as a compact between the interested parties.  They explained:

Throughout our report we have emphasised our belief that the long term wellbeing of higher education rests on establishing a new compact between society, as represented by the Government, students and their families, employers and providing institutions. Each member of the compact needs to play their part and we have shown in the preceding chapters ways in which this can be done. The compact implies that each of the stakeholders both contributes to, and receives benefits from, higher education.
Dearing Report, Paragraph 18.2

The compact was used to explain the fees settlement, but it also shaped the new accountability that the sector would have towards quality assurance or staff.  It is clear that this is not how undergraduate education is now thought of.  It is a personal investment.  Take the recent debate about the ending of grants,  contributions from Conservative MPs included the following:

It is the most incredible investment an individual can make for themselves, including in the form of a loan, which can, of course, be paid back. (Huw Merriman)

and using that investment argument means that others shouldn’t contribute:

The needs of people from my constituency … need to be balanced with the needs of those who go to university. We must face the fact that university graduates benefit from such an investment—to the tune of £170,000 for men over a lifetime and of £250,000 for women over a lifetime. (Seema Kennedy)

Funds for nursing students or postgraduates are also being converted into loans: the majority of the responsibility now lies with only one stakeholder confirmed as the main beneficiary: the student.

Academic Infrastructure

Arguably the most important contribution of Dearing was to settle the issues left over from the removal of the binary line in 1992 and settled a range of institutions which broadly have continued until today.  The Browne Review tried to re-balance that infrastructure – but it’s glib aligning of very different sector bodies found no takers.

The higher education system is currently overseen by four bodies: HEFCE, QAA, OFFA and the OIA These will be replaced by a single Higher Education (HE) Council. It will take a more targeted approach to regulation, with greater autonomy for institutions.

Even if the 2015 Green Paper’s Office for Students is the offspring of Browne, the careful balancing of sector bodies and regulators  from Dearing seems to have won out again. There are things that the sector can do to itself, subject benchmarks for example, that a government regulator could not.  We have seen how the desired diktats of the Home Office with Prevent have melded into guidance from HEFCE.

Can the TEF replace sector regulation? Comparisons with TQA/Subject Review are made (as are comparisons with Ofsted) but at the heart of those systems was the recognition that universities were trying to do different things, and therefore they were tested against their own stated aims.  The achievement of Dearing was an academic infrastructure, binding institutions to a qualifications framework with programme specifications, but who in the sector would own that without the QAA?

Recommendations of their time

Of course, some things have dated rather charmingly.  Take recommendation 46, which looked forward to desktop computer access and mandatory portable computing:

We recommend that by 2000/01 higher education institutions should ensure that all students have open access to a Networked Desktop Computer, and expect that by 2005/06 all students will be required to have access to their own portable computer.

20 years on

The 1997  Dearing report talked about a 20 year vision.  With some exceptions, most of it has lasted that full 20 years.  Only now, in 2016, can we see a different future ahead of us. The Dearing Committee represents an older way of doing higher education policy; prepared to lead, to take chances, but also embedded in the wider experience of the sector.   The problems that Martin Trow saw in Dearing are all vastly amplified in the Green Paper which poses more questions than provides answers.

Maybe the answer lies in recommendation 88 – one of those that was never implemented, but might be quite wise in retrospect:

We recommend to the Government that, in five years’ time and subsequently every ten years, it constitutes a UK-wide independent advisory committee with the task of assessing the state of higher education; advising the Government on its financing and on ways in which, in future years, it can best respond to national needs; on any action that may be needed to safeguard the character and autonomy of institutions; and, in particular, on any changes required in the level of student support and contributions from graduates in employment. Dearing Report



For the last 15 years I have been running workshops on university history for the Association of University Administrators (AUA) annual conference. I will be doing so again in March (last chance: book now before 6 March).  All that time I’ve structured the session around the Dearing Report, the way that it saw the mission of higher education and its values.  This year, however, that only makes sense looking backwards…


The website for the Report is still up – pretty much as I remember in 19 years ago:

Your university will also have a copy of the report.  In 1997 we went to London for a launch conference where we collected our institutional copy and brought it back on the train…


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