Adding an annexe to the ivory towers

October 18, 1996

When The THES came into the world, the UK taught 446,000 students in a higher education sector that included 45 universities. Now there are 1.5 million students and 105 universities. Michael Shattock describes how a once elite sector learnt to live with the masses.

The front page of The THES on October 15 1971 carried a headline about shortfalls in science and engineering applications; two research councils were voicing their concerns about the future "in unprecedentedly vigorous terms"; the provost of the City of London Polytechnic (now London Guildhall University) was discussing the impending crises at his institution when the leases on its buildings ran out. These items are so topical that one could question whether higher education has indeed changed much. But it has: in 1971 14 per cent of 18-year-olds went on to higher education, now it is 33 per cent; there were 446,000 students in higher education, now there are over 1.5 million. In Martin Trow's words we have moved from "elite to mass higher education".

The transformation has not been smooth. In 1971 the universities were well funded - they had just been given a 2 per cent increase in unit funding and were being asked to plan for rapid growth. The polytechnics were also expanding. But in 1974 the oil crises brought cutbacks and the abolition of quinquennial funding. Over the next five years expansion on both sides of the binary line was slow but high inflation produced leap-frogging effects in salary increases between the sectors which led to alarming instabilities. The arrival of the Thatcher government brought the immediate removal of the subsidy for overseas students followed by the 1981 university cuts and the capping of the Advanced Further Education "pool". Although these actions raised a storm of protest, the most important change was the creation of the National Advisory Body, a parallel body to the University Grants Committee for AFE. For the first time there were control mechanisms on both sides of the binary line. But neither body was seen by the Department of Education and Science to work very well. NAB was dominated by local authority representatives while the UGC was dominated by academics and had, in the Cardiff affair, failed to satisfy the Public Accounts Committee that it could exercise financial control over the university sector. Both bodies were swept away in the 1988 Education Reform Act, and replaced by two statutory funding bodies, one for the universities and the other for the polytechnics and colleges. More significantly the latter were removed from local authority control - a giant step towards the national coordination of higher education.

The period 1987 to 1990 represented a high point in the government's adoption of market philosophies. The Lawson boom encouraged financial optimism and the Keith Joseph era of constraint in higher education was replaced by a commitment to market-led expansion with both funding councils devising financial formulae designed to stimulate rapid growth at marginal costs. Cash-strapped universities and polytechnics responded with vigour so that by the time the Treasury realised the consequences, student numbers had grown by 50 per cent. With the collapse of the boom the need to reduce public expenditure forced a dramatic fall in the unit of resource; by 1996 unit costs had fallen by over 50 per cent compared with 1971, more than half of the fall occurring since 1989. The prospect of universities levying charges on students forced the establishment of the Dearing Committee, but the conundrum remains of how to pay for a higher education system which the state has created but can no longer afford.

Lying behind this fundamental problem other important developments have taken place, both structural and social. The Robbins consensus that all universities should be equally engaged in research became unsustainable on grounds of cost and of actual performance. The UGC's first research "selectivity" exercise took place in 1985/86. Its successors in 1989 and 1992 have had the increasing effect of concentrating recurrent research funding into fewer universities: over 50 per cent now goes to only 17 universities. This created tensions enough in the university system of the 1980s but when in 1992 the Further and Higher Education Act created 41 more universities and brought them together with the "old" universities and the colleges of higher education under common funding councils for England, Wales and Scotland, they were intensified. The league tables emanating from the 1992 Research Assessment Exercise showed some of the new universities to be in close competition, but not yet overtaking, the lower rungs of the old universities. However, with a 3 per cent annual reduction in government funding, success in the RAE was seen not simply as conferring status but as a means of financial survival. This has distorted the RAE and emphasised the difficulty of finding an acceptable method of protecting research excellence in a mass higher education system.

The transformation from elite to mass higher education has led to many concerns about a decline in quality. The 1992 act imposed on the new funding councils accountability to Parliament for assessing teaching quality. Discussion about "standards" and "quality" descend quickly in the UK into arguments about mechanisms. Until 1992 the principle of higher education itself being responsible for "standards", either through the Council for National Academic Awards or through institutional controls monitored by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' academic audit unit, was generally accepted. After 1992, with the transfer of degree-awarding powers to the new universities and to some colleges, the funding councils each set up their own quality monitoring systems. There are differing views as to their success.

Over a quarter of a century we have seen an immense growth in opportunity to enter higher education - albeit the dominance of Social Classes I and II remains - and in the resources which the state has made available. The number of universities has risen from 45 to 105 (or 115 university institutions); and over 200,000 higher education students are now in further education (now also removed from local authority control and placed under a funding council) but we have not resolved how the system should be financed. The university teaching profession is significantly underpaid and if the national economy was to improve we would face shortfalls in staffing at all levels.

As The THES has so admirably chronicled from week to week, while some issues, like old soldiers, never die, its first 25 years has seen a real transformation of higher education. We can be confident, though perhaps not optimistic, that it will continue.

Michael Shattock is registrar of the University of Warwick and his latest book, The Creation of a University System, will be published by Blackwells in December.

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