The main question raised by Michael Shattock’s new book is whether any underlying pattern can be discerned in post-war UK higher education policy. A number of writers have pointed to an increase in state control as the nation’s economic performance faltered and governments looked to universities for help. Others, including this reviewer, see instead a gradual move towards market-based policies, of which the 2011 higher education White Paper represents the culmination (at least for now). Shattock rules out any such pattern: the sector’s development since 1945, he argues, “should not be seen as a progression…but a reflection of wider currents of economic and social change”.
Shattock considers five main issues, turning first to the matter of structure. He believes the rejection of the Robbins committee’s 1963 recommendation that the colleges of education should transfer to the university sector was a pivotal moment - and a backward step. It was a point at which the colleges might have been safeguarded, and it could have provided a useful precedent for other locally maintained institutions, such as the polytechnics. As it was, the creation in 1965 of the “binary line” was an unnecessary and ultimately futile policy - although an alternative view might be that the policy was so successful that the transition of polytechnics to university status was accomplished in 1992 with very little trouble.
Turning to the issue of finance, Shattock identifies the most critical episodes as the rejection of the universities’ funding demands in 1962, which broke the link with the Treasury as the sponsor department; the 1973-74 oil crisis, which ended quinquennial funding; the University Grants Committee’s handling of cuts to state funding in 1981, paving the way for research selectivity; and the vice-chancellors’ revolt in 1995-96, which led to the Dearing report and variable fees.
The third subject weighed is research, and Shattock notes that the fusing of research policy and higher education policy would be to the latter’s detriment. The origins of selectivity are traced back to the final report of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1965. Whereas most commentators have drawn attention to the consequential concentration of research funds, Shattock emphasises instead the continuing influence of the research university model.
Fourth, he considers the growth of accountability. The first step was the agreement in 1996-97 that the Public Accounts Committee should have access to the universities’ books. It would lead to the creation of funding agencies more directly accountable to the government.
Another key change in this period was in quality assurance, stimulated in part by ministerial concerns about the effects of the post-1980s expansion.
Shattock concludes by looking at institutional policymaking. In what is perhaps the book’s best chapter, he shows how, in the traditional institutions, there has been a strengthening of the position of management and lay governors at the expense of academic senates: management has always been stronger in the new institutions, with the directorate in effect substituting for the local education authority. Nevertheless, UK universities still enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy, especially in European terms.
Although the book covers a lot of ground, there are important limitations. There is no proper survey of the existing literature. This is essentially an analysis of policymaking: there is no systematic attempt to review the impact of the various policies, although the author’s views on most of the major issues are clear. Shattock is on surer ground with the pre-1992 institutions than the post-1992 ones, and strongest of all on the 1985 Jarratt report and the move towards the corporate model of institutional governance.
There are some important factual lapses in the area of quality and standards. The attention paid to widening participation since the mid-1990s is hardly mentioned, nor is the impact of devolution since 1997 much more fully served, even though it is already leading to some striking divergences, and not only with respect to funding. The feeling persists that this is an account of an era that is rapidly passing, where what has happened will not be much of a guide to the future. Nevertheless, the book will be a useful resource for anyone keen to learn more about the evolution of higher education policy in the UK since the Second World War.
Making Policy in British Higher Education 1945-2011
By Michael Shattock
McGraw-Hill/Open University Press 280pp, £37.99
Published 1 October 2012
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