Leader: An old club much improved by new blood

August 31, 2007

"The present moment may be remembered in two ways," opined The Times Higher in 1992, "as the time when Britain's still inward system of higher education was irreversibly opened up... to the immeasurable benefit of all; or as the time when the ill-defined but deeply etched 'quality' of our universities and colleges... (was) lost as irreversibly".

The summer of 1992 heralded the biggest expansion of the country's university system since the Robbins report decades earlier as 30 former polytechnics were granted leave to apply for university title. There was a good deal of argument, doubtless fruitful, around the details: over admissions, teaching assessment, research funding, who merged with whom to form what and where... and particularly over titles.

There was grumbling of course, on both sides of the binary divide, about "academic drift" and the inadvisability of mixing the ethos of a traditional university with that of its municipal and vocational cousins. And the odd snigger, from one side, as the soon-to-be former polytechnics eagerly equipped themselves with rituals and regalia - splendid gowns, retouched logos and maces at five grand a pop.

Yet there was little coherent opposition to the fundamentals - Labour backed the Conservative Government's proposals, and in the old universities "the donnish dogs" failed to bark.

Fifteen years on, what is the verdict? Inevitably, there have been mistakes. Perhaps the most serious was that many new institutions tried to ape their older peers by trying to play the same research game. In the rush to be the new Warwick or York, some lost their moorings. But after 15 years, and a few lessons expensively learnt, the sector, on balance, has much to be grateful for.

First, the ending of the binary divide greatly helped to expand higher education and bring participation rates closer to those enjoyed by the UK's developed competitors. The new universities played a key role in doing it efficiently, quickly and relatively cheaply. If expansion was not accompanied by the state largesse that accompanied Robbins, and staff-to-student ratios and the unit of resource continued to decline, the former polytechnics were hardly culpable.

Second, the new universities were, and remain, adept at extending the benefits of higher education among staff and students to non-traditional constituencies. It was significant that the old Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals gained its only female members when the new universities enlisted.

Third, they greatly helped to expand the idea of what could be studied in a university and how. To reprise the tabloid litany of "Mickey Mouse" degrees is crass and misleading. The new universities have been at the forefront in developing those subjects - health and business studies, information technologies, the arts in all their diverse forms, applied science, education - that are crucial to a modern economy.

Finally, it is a mistake to suppose that the university sector lost something when the new members were admitted to the club. Universities in this country have always been a plurality, and inclusion of the ex-polytechnics added depth and breadth to a system that has never been static and has always evolved.

"Must we choose," The Times Higher asked 15 years ago, "between quality and access?" The answer must be, as it was then, no. Nowhere is it written that you can have one but not the other. Quality is a salient issue in any system of provision; it should be no more implied in an elite model than its absence assumed in a mass one. Arguably, the former polytechnics earned their place at the university table long before they were allowed to do so in 1992; the past 15 years have only served to confirm the importance of their contribution.

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