GOV. WILLIAM Donald Schaefer's campaign promise to push through a massive restructuring and "streamlining" of higher education in Maryland has, not surprisingly, turned into a political battle royal in a state whose 285 institutions of higher learning have tended to go their own ways under a grab bag of different systems. The University of Maryland has five campuses; a separate State Colleges and Universities System has six; two more public colleges operate independently, while a statewide board is supposed to play "referee" among these, 27 independent colleges, 17 community colleges and 230 vocational schools. Over the years, blue-ribbon panels have repeatedly recommended overhaul as a way of dealing with longstanding sore spots in an otherwise healthy education situation: the duplication of programs, the lack of a preeminent public institution in Baltimore (where there are now six struggling schools under three different governing authorities) and the lack of a top 10 flagship campus along the lines of a Madison or a Chapel Hill.

Because authority is piecemeal, the theory goes, these schools can't get together on the tough decisions to merge programs and eliminate waste -- and they can't lobby effectively to squeeze more money out of the state. A stronger central authority would accomplish both. The governor has made it known that he won't push for more money until the structural problem has been solved. He asked the presidents and chancellors of the four-year public universities last summer to give him a plan, and they came back with a proposal to merge their 13 institutions under a single, much-strengthened board of regents with the authority to shut down programs and set priorities and policies.

But the difficulties this plan has run into, as it slogs its way toward the January session of the state legislature, suggest that a brand-new structure won't do much to solve any specific problem. The current hodgepodge is a product of historical forces, including past segregation. No one wants to close historically black colleges, nor tamper with independent schools that do well and boost the state economy. So the plan is larded with safeguards. Each campus gets a strong local board of trustees. To counterbalance the budget clout of a unified public university, the governor, at the urging of the private institutions and others, also strengthened the statewide board that oversees everybody. College Park, which has steadily improved in recent years and fears being cannibalized by Baltimore-area pols who want a rival campus, sought and received assurances that it will remain the "flagship."

This wedding-cake bureaucracy could as easily paralyze reform as speed it up. Not all high-quality state education systems are run from a strong center: neighboring Virginia exercises only the loosest control. If Gov. Schaefer wants progress on specific educational problems, he will eventually have to bring his political leadership powers directly to bear on them, no matter what the overarching system.