Polys were no follies

The Polytechnic Experiment 1965-92
April 24, 1998

The lifespan of the polytechnics was brief: none survived more than 23 years. Established between 1968 and 1973 (with four additions in 1989-90), all were translated into universities in 1992. Moreover, they were restricted largely to England and never developed to the same extent elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Despite that, their significance and influence has been considerable.

Their creation represented something without parallel in the UK: a deliberate attempt to foster a particular kind of higher education. Anthony Crosland, the secretary of state for education, sketched this out in 1965. There were, he suggested, two distinct traditions within UK higher education: one of autonomy in the universities and another in the "public sector", which had existed since before the first world war in the larger technical colleges and colleges of education. What was needed to preserve both was a dual, or "binary", system that would, Crosland implied, resist the hegemony of the universities.

He proposed that "public sector" higher education should keep its distinctive character by remaining under "social control", essentially that of local authorities, enabling it to respond to society's needs, to increase the standing of professional and technical education and to provide vocational courses.

In The Polytechnic Experiment 1965-92, John Pratt sets himself two tasks: to provide the first general history of these institutions and to analyse the intentions, outcomes and wider implications of the binary policy.

As a general history, the book is a major achievement. It presents the development of the polytechnics in context, draws on many primary and secondary sources, supplies a wealth of statistical material and offers in-depth analyses. This authoritative history will be welcome to all students of higher education. As an exercise in policy analysis, the book's success is less complete. Pratt's treatment of the origins of the policy is rather cursory. A more detailed consideration of earlier attempts to strengthen technological higher education might have thrown more light on the policy's political origins.

Pratt has much more to say on the policy's outcomes. The general balance of his analysis is that the polytechnics developed a coherent educational philosophy that preserved openness, diversity and responsiveness, blurred the distinction between academic and vocational and stimulated educational innovation. He even states that "by 1992 the polytechnics had helped to make possible mass higher eduction in Britain".

The book suggests that the binary policy had considerable impact. Many of the dominant features of today's unified higher education originated in the polytechnics or were most strongly developed there. One might cite modularity, accessibility, vocational relevance, credit accumulation and innovations in teaching and assessment. The convergence between former polytechnics and former universities is now such that, Pratt observes, "the resultant 'unified system' cannot be wholly or accurately described in terms of either of the predecessor sectors". However, some features of convergence may be understood as responses to the massive changes in the environment of higher education since 1965.

If the binary policy was a success, why should the polytechnics have been given university status? The polytechnics, it seems, came to an end as a consequence of a paradox within the policy. The universities and polytechnics were different enough from one another to provide diverse approaches to education and similar enough for these approaches to be relevant to both. This, it appears, was the strength of binarism but also the cause of its fall: in the long run, the sectors could not be held apart.

Pratt concludes that the polytechnics owed their success primarily to the fact that they developed a distinctive, shared and coherent philosophy. Diversity is only possible, he argues, if it can call on various coherent views on the nature of higher education.

Although the rhetoric of diversity is now widespread in UK higher education it remains to be seen if there is a sufficient plurality of educational philosophy to support genuine diversity of practice and thus to avoid conformist uniformity or hierarchy.

Peter W. G. Wright is assistant director, Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

The Polytechnic Experiment 1965-92

Author - John Pratt
ISBN - 0 335 19564 4
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 358

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