Ivy and plate glass

The State of UK Higher Education
June 1, 2001

He wanted to be a university manager from early childhood. It is not a line you hear very often. Train driver, footballer, WWF wrestler, prime minister - but university manager?

According to this edited collection of essays, a career in university administration was ever Michael Shattock's goal. As registrar of Warwick University, he presided over a period during which it became, as Baroness Blackstone put it, "one of the most successful universities in the country". The largest of the seven universities built in the 1960s, Warwick's income last year, £149 million, was double that of its counterparts such as Essex and Kent. This year it was listed as one of the four best universities for teaching quality ( The Guardian ), the sixth best university in the country overall ( The Times ) and "the success story of the university world" ( The Independent ). It has built up a stable of academic stars including Germaine Greer, economics professor Andrew Oswald, mathematician Ian Stewart and Kumar Bhattacharya, head of the university's multimillion-pound manufacturing group.

Warwick's success and the personal record of Shattock as registrar is the tenuous thread that weaves together this disparate collection of essays. The book serves partly as a tribute to Shattock on his retirement from the university and partly as a description of the state of academic institutions ranging from Oxbridge to the new universities. All but one of the contributors passed through Warwick and many of them worked under Shattock. The third section of the book is, ostensibly, all about the "Warwick way of doing things".

But we get only glimpses of the management style that has contributed to Warwick's success. There are passing references to the university's entrepreneurial culture (the "earned income group"); to the centralisation of resource allocation by making all bids for academic posts pass through one committee; to the establishment of Warwick's science park; and to the creation of teams featuring both academics and administrators. Yet the most illuminating reference is a quote from Shattock himself: "My world is pretty untidy... It puts a premium on alertness, on moving, at times, very fast indeed, either to attract people or funds or both and on maintaining an effective communication system round the university and outside to get things done."

Two big issues face higher education. First, will the top tranche of British universities rise to the government's challenge to admit a far higher percentage of working-class students? Second, will the Ivy League start to charge top-up fees for popular degree courses, and how will that affect the student intake?

The essays are shot through with anxiety about access. Philip Harvey notes of Exeter University that 66 per cent of its entrants are from state schools. (At Warwick, 72.1 per cent of the intake was from state schools in 1999.) David Palfreyman says of Oxford that "like many of the top universities (it) still admits a disproportionate number of privately educated students". Nationally, as Palfreyman says, the picture is that "the age participation rate at 18 for the children of the AB professional and managerial classes has risen to around 85 per cent... while the APR for the offspring of manual workers has remained stubbornly stuck at around 15 per cent."

But scant light is cast here on how to improve what Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust, calls this "scandalous waste of talent". To paraphrase the book's title, how will universities manage "change" to achieve the "diversity" they seek? How is Warwick doing it? This is what one wants to know, but the book is sadly silent on the question. Palfreyman suggests that it will take a test case under the new human rights legislation to force universities to boost that 15 per cent figure.

With regard to top-up fees, there are again passing references. David Holmes asks whether the civic universities such as Manchester and Birmingham will follow the lead set by London, Oxford and Cambridge, if and when they opt for a differential fee regime. His conclusion is that they will not - rather he sees them diversifying into establishing more distance and part-time courses. Allan Bolton, however, warns that until business schools can charge "realistic top-up fees to undergraduates and to reinvest surpluses, most United Kingdom schools will continue to suffer". But there is no joined-up thinking about how the whole sector will cope if the Ivy League does break away to charge top-up fees, or about how the system will be "managed".

In a concluding essay, Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston and erstwhile editor of The THES , pats our universities on the back. UK higher education has five times as many students as in the 1960s and yet retains its "traditional academic attributes". The question for him is whether it can move from a 33 per cent age participation index to the 50 per cent index Labour wants to see, and the answer he gives is encouraging.

I wish I could be as positive about this book. It offers some fascinating insights, but it never quite hangs together as a whole.

Sian Griffiths is deputy editor (supplements), The Sunday Times , and was an education journalist for 13 years.

The State of UK Higher Education: Managing Change and Diversity

Editor - David Warner and David Palfreyman
ISBN - 0 335 20833 9
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 236

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