AS THE MARYLAND legislature begins its session this week, one bill it does not have before it is the final version of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's controversial plan to restructure higher education. That initiative is still undergoing frantic last-minute revision after three months of political battles that all but swallowed up the educational questions at stake. The governor has wanted from the outset to "streamline" a system now run under a mismatched assortment of governing boards with relatively little coordination. His extreme reluctance to compromise on that grand vision -- even with his own lieutenant governor -- has raised such political cacophony that getting any education bill at all through the legislature will be iffy.

Gov. Schaefer started out with a sweeping plan to unite all 13 public universities under one powerful board of regents that could close or merge programs and set detailed policies. This alarmed various education interests -- the historically black colleges among them -- which feared such a strong board would erode diversity and autonomy. It also sparked a vigorous debate on whether Maryland's failure to create a preeminent public university was the fault of structure or simply of historical underfunding. (Maryland, in the top 10 states in per-capita income, ranks 37th in per-capita spending on higher education.)

This bracing debate on first principles got considerably more complicated when Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg, charged with shepherding the plan through the legislature, suddenly declared he'd been persuaded by the concerns he'd heard expressed and now favored a far more modest package, one that redrew only a few lines of authority and spent a lot more money. Widely expected to give some weight, at least, to the opinion of his deputy, Gov. Schaefer instead insisted publicly that his own views had not changed "one iota."

The ensuing confusion brought lengthy Schaefer-Steinberg negotiations over the holidays and yet another plan, still in outline. It still stresses the unified public university and powerful board. It beefs up a statewide coordinating council to give those outside the umbrella some leverage -- this was a fear among private, community and vocational colleges -- but eliminates another counterweight of earlier versions: smaller boards for individual campuses. A few concerns are addressed: $50 million would go into a new "dedicated purpose fund," whose use is unclear; two schools that objected particularly to unification would go on operating under their own boards; College Park would get "legislative acknowledgment" that it is the flagship campus.

But the broader contention that structure is not the problem and that campuses need autonomy has obviously not moved the governor. It remains the crucial point for the plan's legislative opponents. Educators and legislators expect a full session of all-or-nothing combat and a close vote -- not necessarily the best way to handle a complex problem that will shape high-tech Maryland's future sooner or later.