The Governance of British Higher Education: The Impact of Governmental, Financial and Market Pressures, by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath

Book of the week: Lincoln Allison is surprised by the amount of common ground he, as a traditionalist academic, now shares with the ‘innovatory managers’ he once quarrelled with 

January 23, 2020
London students protest tuition fees
Source: Getty

In 1969, Mike Shattock and I both took up posts at the University of Warwick. He was academic registrar and, later, registrar, a role he redefined as managerial and strategic. He steadily came to be regarded as an expert on university governance. I, on the other hand, was a recognisable type described in this book: a backwoodsman, a teacher and writer whose knowledge of and interest in the overall governance of the university system were at very low levels. This can be illustrated by reference to the list of 98 initials and acronyms for organisations and governance to be found here: I could fill out the full names of fewer than a third.

This was possible in my generation because university structures had been little changed for generations and had acquired a “time out of mind” quality. We were an “academic community”, self-governing and self-regulated, represented by a senate of senior persons who made such collective decisions as needed making. There would be a council involving “lay” members, but in normal times this served merely as a “rubber stamp”. In Oxford and Cambridge colleges, there was a kind of Athenian democracy with a governing body consisting of all the fellows. Everywhere, the financial aspects of university affairs moved slowly; there was a continuity of genteel comfort, nothing for one to worry one’s little academic head about.

There then descended upon the system a coordinated and irreversible body of changes that turned out to be far more radical than anything the likes of me had ever imagined. In old age, I have been left “bemoaning the lost Eden of academia”, to borrow a phrase used by a sub-editor about one of my articles.

The financial dimension of change was the most immediately felt. It started with “cuts”, but then came the possibility of earning money from fees (initially from overseas students) and from research grants and favourable research assessments. For the institution, there was the chance of moving on to higher financial levels, but also a new threat of financial disaster. For the individual, if he or she were a successful researcher or a high-flying manager, there were new possibilities for seriously high salaries, but there were also lower incomes and less job security for many. It’s difficult to fulfil the idea of an “academic community” under those circumstances.

As a result of these developments, universities are more in competition with each other. At the top level, this is a contest for rankings, prestige and research money, while at lower strata it is a competition for applicants (see all those advertisements on buses and stadiums). If anybody believed Sir Keith Joseph – secretary of state for education and science under Margaret Thatcher from 1981 to 1986 – that this would make them more independent, that belief can’t have lasted very long because they are all more subject to government diktat than they ever were before. I may not have been much interested, but I did immediately see that this was bound to be a consequence of external research assessment.

Internally, universities are much more hierarchical and have evolved a variety of new roles and bodies to direct policy that leave senates looking like Soviet legislatures. “Lay” figures have grown in importance everywhere and in some cases are paid for their contribution, whereas the University Grants Committee in its early years was militant in penalising universities that allowed too much influence to non-academic figures. (It is in some ways paradoxical that the word “lay” is used in this context: although it reflects the ecclesiastical origins of academic life, it is now used in essence to refer to business interests.)

These are some of the main lines of argument put forward in this book. As I have summarised them so far, they are not surprising and offer the kind of synthesis that many people who have worked in universities would broadly accept. But it is good to see it properly researched with a combination of Shattock’s breadth of experience and Aniko Horvath’s wide selection of interviews.

There are other findings that are less widely understood. One is that UK universities, which used to maintain strongly similar practices, are now extremely diverse in almost every way. In administration, there are universities that are close to traditional patterns and universities that are in essence run like companies. Some have a student body from all over the world, others draw a majority from the city in which they are situated. It is also the case that devolution, coming at a time of intense pressures for change, has led to the university systems of the four nations of the UK developing more distinctive national characteristics.

I cannot resist the observation that there is a very direct parallel between what has happened to universities and what has happened to sports clubs, an object of my own research. In the days of what I call the “amateur hegemony”, clubs were a haven of apolitical stability. Like universities, they had a known way of doing things that had lasted for generations. They were affiliated to national associations but were run by committees that had a massive degree of autonomy. Then along came leagues (which didn’t exist in rugby or cricket outside limited areas until the 1980s), Sports Council policies and funding, and lottery money. If you were running a club, you found yourself both in a highly competitive situation and much more subject to outside control. You might try to ignore the changing world, but you could be sure the rival so-and-sos down the road would jump on bandwagons and steal your members. It’s all very similar.

When I picked up this book, I expected that I would have a considerable measure of disagreement with it. The senior author, after all, was management – innovatory management at that – and I was determinedly unmanageable. The one reaction I maintained throughout was a firm opposition to research assessment. In this context, it is interesting to note that one of the anonymous interviewees quoted here remarks that his or her university research assessment committee was always referred to as “the Stasi”.

The summary that we find here makes it clear that fear, short-termism and bureaucratic sclerosis have seriously damaged the quality of the intellectual product: “The sense that the conditions for the pursuit of high quality academic work have worsened and are continuing to worsen is widespread.” And it is not as if other aspects of university life have improved: the “customers” repeatedly say that they don’t like being customers and see their qualifications as having rapidly declining value. The authors acknowledge that the most successful universities are those that have changed least, mainly Oxford and Cambridge.

There is widespread agreement that existing trends are damaging the university system. Sadly, the authors note that there are few ideas among senior personnel about what might be done, let alone a consensus. But their insistence that we rebuild the idea of an “academic community” – an idea that has gone underground rather than away – is surely correct. There is no possibility of a return to a broad parity of institutions. Faith in new, “for profit” institutions (a pet project of David Willetts, minister of state for universities and science from 2010 to 2014) seems laughably optimistic. The only hope is for a return to calm and autonomy in some elite institutions. This would probably require a government that was prepared to abandon the use of universities for social and economic engineering projects, perhaps even a government that “revered” university autonomy as governments in previous periods were said to do.

Lincoln Allison is emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick.

The Governance of British Higher Education: The Impact of Governmental, Financial and Market Pressures
By Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath
Bloomsbury, 224pp, £90.00
ISBN 9781350074026
Published 3 October 2019

The authors

Michael Shattock, a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, was born in Reading and studied history at the University of Oxford, where he recalls asking his “tutor, a distinguished medieval historian, how Oxford was governed and managed – he had no idea. This lit a fuse which has remained with me. I became a university administrator and was later for 16 years registrar of the University of Warwick.”

As well as writing books on governance and management, and the history of policymaking, within higher education, Shattock has acted as an adviser to both governments and institutions in these areas. He now leads the project on governance at the Centre for Global Higher Education, based at both Oxford and the UCL Institute of Education.

Aniko Horvath, a research associate at the UCL Institute of Education, was born in Romania and studied journalism and mass communication at Babeş-Bolyai University, the largest in the country. She went on to a teaching position while also working as a documentary film-maker and began to understand “the many aspects of discrimination, marginalisation and social exclusion that resulted in much of the poverty and inequalities I saw in the life of my students”.

After a period in the US, Horvath came to London and “witnessed first-hand the changes that followed the political decision to increase university tuition fees at UK universities”, while an international research project gave her much insight into “the changes that were taking place – as a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis – in the education systems of eight other European Union countries”. This also led her to reflect on “the differences in governance and policymaking across countries, and the role and perception of academics in British society and the kinds of values that were attached to ‘knowledge production’ here”.

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: When change is not for the better

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