Reporter 408, 20 October 1997

What does Dearing mean for Leeds?

After fourteen months of research and consultation, Sir Ron Dearing’s report into the future of higher education – all 1,774 pages of it – was published on July 23. It was debated at special meetings of Senate and Council earlier this month.

One of the great pleasures in reading Sir Ron Dearing’s elegant and far-sighted report, said University Vice-Chancellor Professor Alan Wilson, was that the University had anticipated many of its findings. Thus we are well placed to take advantage of its strategic recommendations in core activities of teaching and learning and research.

The University is also happy to endorse general statements about the role of higher education in helping individuals realise their potential, increase their knowledge and understanding and contribute to the economic and democratic well-being of a sustainable, civilised society.

But in the absence of a general response by the Government, there remained much uncertainty about many of the report’s central recommendations.

Even where decisions have been announced, such as the introduction of student tuition fees, abolition of the maintenance grant, lifting of the cap on student numbers and on funding (see Reporters 406/407), the sector was still awaiting further information and guidance on how such measures will be implemented. Issues such as the funding of four-year degrees and the reluctance of students with large debts to embark on postgraduate study need to be addressed.

A key goal of Dearing - and the new admin-istration - is to widen access and establish a culture of “life-long learning.” The University welcomed the opportunity to increase participation but needed to plan carefully the nature and pace of growth and formulate a strategy on the issue of life-long learning.

There is potential tension between increasing numbers and pressure to drive up standards of excellence in some subjects. However, widening participation would be an important issue with the proposed shift towards a system in which funding follows students.

Dearing’s recommendations on research were generally supportive; his view that its base should be world-class is widely endorsed and Leeds, in particular, was delighted at the opportunities presented by an increased emphasis on collaboration and industrial partnerships.

But there are concerns about the principle that public and private sponsors should make a greater contribution towards the ‘full cost’ of research; would this mean fewer grants to fewer institutions? Industry and charities have so far failed to respond positively to the call for increased support.

We also need to investigate new ways of stimulating interdisciplinary research and of overcoming current disincentives, such as rigidly-defined boundaries set by the RAE and lack of funds to pump-prime new initiatives. Difficulties might be addressed by tying in interdisciplinary research with a teaching base, such as with Environmental Studies. On funding, hard decisions would be needed about the allocation of the remainder of the departmental investment and restructuring fund (DIRF).

The proposed new Arts and Humanities Research Council was welcomed - particularly if it is to be adequately resourced - but it was hoped that funding could still be accessed from other agencies.

In many respects, Dearing had reinforced the need for new partnerships - locally and regionally - of the kind Leeds has already been developing. In addition, the University has been a pioneer in the evolution of university companies.

In response to fears that the University would be subjected to further reorganisation, the Vice-Chancellor said our recent restructuring had equipped us to respond to the challenges presented by Dearing, although a number of staff would be required to drive forward new initiatives. Staff engaged in ‘non-traditional’ post-Dearing work should receive equal consideration in promotion and related exercises.

Council will consider recommendations to limit the size of University governing bodies and other matters of governance. The issues raised by the Report will be taken forward by appropriate committees and working groups.

The indexed, searchable text of the Dearing Report is available at: /educol/ncihe

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