Robert Stevens begins his salutary history of the British universities with a lesson from America. In the late 1950s, Yale University was in trouble.
Its conservative president, A. Whitney Griswold, had seen its function as educating "a thousand Christian gentlemen". Yale had no Jewish or black full professors and a strict quota was applied to Jewish undergraduates. In the 1960s, a new president, Kingman Brewster, modernised the university. He admitted women, ended discrimination against Jews and sought students from other minorities. He also expanded scientific education and the Graduate School.
But how to finance these momentous reforms? Brewster decided that only one-third of Yale's income should be derived from federal funding, the remainder would come from student fees and endowment. Tenured appointments would be financed from only the last two sources so that if federal money dried up, no tenured faculty would be lost. This, Brewster believed, would ensure the academic freedom and independence of the university.
Two Oxonian visitors, Thomas Balogh and Otto Kahn-Freund, were horrified by Yale's dependence on rich alumni and corporations. They advised Brewster to adopt the British model and establish an American University Grants Committee. The Americans asked whether the piper might not ultimately call the tune, but were reassured that the UGC was a mere buffer, and that, in Britain, governments would never seek to deny universities funds, much less tell them how many students they could take or how to choose them. The British visitors insisted that the inability of the Americans to develop a mechanism to sanitise payments from government was evidence of the inferiority of their political system.
Sadly, there were no British Brewsters. His British equivalents, poor creatures that they were, found themselves seduced by the subtle pressures of the establishment and became more concerned to secure their knighthoods than the independence of the institutions for which they were responsible.
"Max Weber," Stevens argues, "would have enjoyed the implications of a group who appointed one another to committees and were consulted on the allocation of honours - to one another". University to Uni is more polemic than history, but none the worse for that; and it is, of course, particularly timely.
Stevens is peculiarly well qualified to write this book, having been a professor of law at Yale, provost of Tulane University and of Haverford College as well as master of Pembroke College, Oxford. He appreciates that the US, with about 4,000 institutions of higher education, probably has 50 of the best universities in the world and perhaps 500 of the worst.
Nevertheless, he remains strongly attracted by their independence. As president of Haverford, admittedly, he had feared "that the elite private institutions were in danger of excluding bright students from poorer homes". But this fear, he now appreciates, was misplaced. "A well-endowed private institution with a social conscience is far more effective at attracting a wide socioeconomic group of students than the inflexible public institution."
There is, however, a disjunction in University to Uni between the radical tendency of the central argument and the timidity of its conclusions. This powerful polemic concludes by embracing the government's proposals, for fear perhaps of something worse. "Loss of the top-up fee," Stevens believes, "would be close to disaster." That, of course, has become the conventional wisdom, and it is true that the government's proposals provide a small measure of independence to universities in that they can decide what fee to charge students, up to a limit of £3,000 a year. Yet, even the House of Commons select committee on education and skills sought more than this, arguing for a maximum fee of £5,000 a year, with higher maintenance grants but unsubsidised loans.
Most important, the committee argued for the abandonment of the access regulator. The market that the government seeks to create will be regulated and state controlled. Universities are not owned by the state, yet the state presumes to tell them how many students they can take, what they should be charged and how they should be chosen. Universities have become, in effect, a nationalised industry. Indeed when, in the late 1980s, Kenneth Baker, the then education secretary, visited the dying Soviet Union, he was congratulated on the degree of control that he had achieved.
From University to Uni shows that a state monopoly on higher education institutionalises grumbling and bad feeling. It is a pity, therefore, that Stevens fails to follow through the logic of his argument, which implies the independence or privatisation of some at least of our universities, on the sole condition that they provide, as Harvard University, for example, does, need-blind admissions through sufficient bursaries to admit able young people from poor backgrounds.
In his magisterial account of an earlier period, Government and the Universities in Britain, 1960-1980 (1986), John Carswell argues that the relationship between the government and the universities was like that between a perpetually arguing husband and wife. The wife knew that the husband had a mistress, while the husband thought of his wife as a nuisance. Nevertheless, they stayed together - for the sake of the children. Perhaps, however, the time has now come for a divorce. Otherwise, as the ineffable vice-chancellor of Watermouth University declares in Malcolm Bradbury's novel The History Man , looking at the history of the universities: "That's Genesis - I suppose you might say we're in Numbers now. And, I'm afraid, getting close to Job and Lamentations."
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.
University to Uni: The Politics of Higher Education in England since 1944
Author - Robert Stevens
Publisher - Politico's
Pages - 196
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 1 845 102 6