WHAT SEEMED to be a controversial but fast-moving initiative to reform higher education in Maryland -- one that had the governor, the lieutenant governor and 11 public university chiefs firmly behind it -- stalled unexpectedly last week when the lieutenant governor, Melvin Steinberg, announced he favored instead an as yet unformed alternative that would pour more money into public education and make only minor changes in statewide authority. In signaling a change of heart, Mr. Steinberg was responding to the strong concerns and arguments he has been hearing in his efforts to turn the original initiative into workable legislation -- concerns that eventually persuaded him. The task for the governor is to decide in the next few days whether to embrace this radically changed approach to higher education reform or stick to a restructuring plan that was encountering some very heavy weather.

When the governor launched his education reform blitz, his intent was to make public higher education more efficient before he gave it any more money. He asked the public-university heads last summer to draft him a plan, and they came back with a proposal to unite all 13 public campuses under a powerful board of regents that could close, merge or reshape programs. But some of the shortfalls in the Maryland system, such as the failure of College Park to reach first-rank quality, have less to do with structure than with simple stinginess. Though it ranks sixth in the nation in per capita income, Maryland for some reason is 36th in funding per capita for public higher education. Much of the money there is goes to the private colleges and universities (on the reasoning that such stellar private institutions as Johns Hopkins greatly benefit the state economy). Other problems that do involve structure -- like the duplication of graduate programs, none of them particularly strong, in the Baltimore area -- are the product of historical forces and inertia and will not automatically disentangle themselves under any structure known to man.

Advocates of the plan argued that a unified public university would itself bring about a funding increase because it would more effectively lobby the legislature -- as happened in North Carolina under a similar reorganization. But it's a Maryland oddity that the legislature can only subtract from, not add to, the budget the governor proposes. That means Gov. William Donald Schaefer has tremendous discretionary power; no one is going to increase funding for anything until he is ready.

Mr. Steinberg's surprise shift in emphasis makes that readiness more likely of attainment, if only by putting the money question foremost in people's minds. Whichever vision prevails, he is contributing to an encouragingly open and bracing debate on first principles and an understanding that Maryland cannot reform its higher education on the cheap.