Britain's nationalised industry

The State and Higher Education
April 28, 1995

Since the 1960s most writing about higher education and government has started from the assumption that higher education, or at least the university system, represented a kind of state within a state, and that, in spite of the fact that it was entirely financially dependent on government the relationship was essentially that of equals, of whom one (government) misused its position by failing to provide financial support at an appropriate level or sought to unbalance the relationship by threats of direct action or thoughtless legislation. One of the merits of The State and Higher Education is that it marks a sharp break with this approach; it seeks to describe the relationship by looking at it through government eyes.

A review of the relationship after a decade in which Parliament has passed four pieces of legislation on higher education is, of course, timely. Brian Salter and Ted Tapper rightly point out that this legislation has completely altered both the legal and the constitutional relationships between the universities and the state, bringing them much more into line with European practice generally. However, in emphasising this revolution, the authors go too far in claiming that a planned process was at work. Their book is valuable in its attempt to set the change within a theoretical perspective but their adoption of a rigid conceptual framework is less than satisfying.

This framework, as the authors emphasise, they first enunciated in Education and Public Order and Education, Politics and the State, published as long ago as 1978 and 1981. Essentially they posit that the state must adopt an "economic ideology of education" and that the prime agent of this ideology must be "the dominant government bureaucracy" responsible for policy formation and implementation - that is the Department of Education and Science, now the Department for Education. Salter and Tapper seek to show how these pressures imposed themselves on higher education through the views of political parties and the actions of the Privy Council, Parliament and its committees, the University Grants Committee and National Advisory Body for Higher Education and other central government bodies.

However, I am not sure the chapters on the Privy Council and on Parliament tell the whole story. The Privy Council was, I think, not so dependent solely on advice from the UGC in the period up to 1960. Too much importance is attached to reports from Parliamentary Select Committees in the 1970s and not enough to the reformed Select Committee system in the 1980s. To say that "by 1967 the block grant principle had become no more than a useful political myth" is to deny the fact that the 1967 quinquennial settlement represented the most significant blank cheque the university system had ever received, with a 2 per cent improvement in the unit of resource (the only improvement since the 1950s) and no strings attached, thanks to a UGC unwilling to translate its rhetoric into action.

According to the authors, by 1975 the UGC was in a state of uncertainty because the DES "had not worked out how to get more control over the education system as a whole" and was therefore unable to give it "clear signals". "Then," they continue, "came the economic crisis of 197475, which to the DES was an opportunity very much to be seized and used to demolish its historical role as a department with "responsibility but without power". Having waged and won an ideological struggle which, by the end of the 1970s, had left itself centre stage, the department could then turn back to the problem of the universities in the 1980s."

It is an interesting theory but the facts do not support it. Anyone familiar with the turmoil created in Whitehall by the downfall of the Heath government, the subsequent inflation and the so-called "winter of discontent" will have no difficulty in appreciating the UGC's difficulties in managing a university system destabilised by mounting salary costs in the latter half of the 1970s. It was not the DES but the Treasury that intervened on the arrival of the Thatcher government, for instance in respect to overseas student fees. Indeed the story of the reorientation of British government between 1975 and 1985 is largely one of an increasing dominance of the Treasury over spending departments, most notably those that dealt with education, health and social services. The DES was far from being "centre stage"; indeed until the arrival of Sir Keith Joseph, it was largely peripheral to the Thatcher revolution.

It seems a mistake to see higher education as having any great priority within either the DES or the Government between 1970 and the mid-1980s, except in relation to its research function, where it overlapped with interests central to Britain's view of its place in the world. Kenneth Baker, followed by Kenneth Clark, caused higher education to move up in political priorities, but it was Treasury pressure, combined with political ideology, that imposed a market-based approach on the great expansion of the 198792 years, not the DES.

But the authors are right to conclude that "the struggle for the middle ground between universities and the state is over and that the state has won". However, I question their view that the "struggle" was about the power to control or produce educational change.

The driving force may well have been financial, and the past quarter-century's changes in the structure and management of higher education may have been the result of changes in the Government's approach to the management of public finance rather than of ideology.

On this argument, the 1960s illusions in the Robbins, Anderson and Trend reports have been swept away, at least in Whitehall, and the state must now seek to manage higher education as economically as it can, consistent with the dictates of value for money.

Michael Shattock is registrar, University of Warwick.

The State and Higher Education

Author - Brian Salter and Ted Tapper
ISBN - 0 7130 0190 9
Publisher - The Woburn Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 242pp

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