Many happy returns (to some familiar themes and faces)

Funding cuts. Fees. Privatisation. Old institutions versus new. Ministerial (re)visions - and withering letters-page retorts. John Morgan journeys through 40 years of our back issues

October 13, 2011

Britain in 1971: the Tories were in power, inflation was soaring and unemployment was on the rise.

This was also the year in which an extremist group known as The Angry Brigade bombed the homes of government ministers and the fashion boutique Biba; an IRA bomb exploded at London's Post Office Tower; Margaret Thatcher brought an end to free school milk; and Britain expelled 105 Soviet officials for spying.

Platform shoes were all the rage, everyone was listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and in the world of newspapers, the Daily Sketch closed, the Daily Mail changed from a broadsheet to a tabloid, and the Times Higher Education Supplement was born.

In many ways, early issues of the THES (renamed Times Higher Education in 2008) show how much the sector and the publication have changed. Today's swingeing funding cuts were not even dreamed of. Even the 1971 settlement from the forerunner of today's higher education funding councils, the University Grants Committee - a 4 per cent increase excluding inflation - was seen as a disappointment, and greeted by the THES as "the first nip of the chill climate for the next quinquennium". One vice-chancellor described the settlement as "vicious".

The University of Leeds grumbled about its 1 to 2 per cent funding increase. How could it be expected to finance its 8 per cent expansion in student places? "University teachers have reached deadlock in their claim for a 15.9 per cent increase in salary," ran another story - although, to be fair, this came at a time when inflation ran at 9 per cent. Polytechnics, meanwhile, were still a relatively new force, The Open University had just welcomed its first students and Thatcher was education secretary.

The THES itself was a 24-page tabloid newspaper printed in black and white. It took seven issues and 20 photographs of (mostly) bespectacled male academics before an equivalent photograph of a UK female academic appeared. Top stories in the early days of the THES included the sacking of a University of Birmingham English lecturer and ensuing debate over whether the university's decision was related to his Marxist views. Letter writers dwelt on the possibility of abolishing tenure for academics ("What other way is there to avoid the accumulation of dead wood in universities?" asked one) and headlines could be rather staid. "Rotating vice-chancellor has less authority", asserted one of the sub-editors' more puzzling efforts. But while much of this seems remote, many of the issues debated on the pages of the THES in its early days are still relevant in the sector today - among them, whether polytechnics should aspire to parity with the older universities or offer a distinct type of education, the merits of establishing a private university and how to fund a mass higher education system.

On funding, an early leader written by Peter Scott, who would go on to become the publication's editor and later the vice-chancellor of Kingston University, mounted a strong defence of taxpayer-funded maintenance grants for students, arguing that loans would be "a greater disincentive to working-class school leavers than school leavers from more prosperous classes".

"If the claim to equality of education opportunity is not to be empty words, a free education service, including grants for students, must be preserved as one of the foundations of democracy," he argued.

From the start, the battle lines on publicly funded education and marketisation - issues still shaping the sector today - were being drawn in the pages of the THES.

Just as today, in 1971 there were concerns about students' career prospects ("One in seven graduates still unemployed", ran one headline). And, proving that there is nothing new under the sun, the first leader column looked at an idea that is still regularly rolled out by government ministers today: two-year degrees.

The University of Bristol was planning to offer two-year courses for science students who felt that they were not suited to further study. The THES argued that while in some cases a two-year degree "will have a disastrous effect on the quality of the education", Bristol's plan should "not (be) trampled into the ground in a last-ditch defence of the completely theoretical sanctity of the three-year honours degree".

Gareth Williams, emeritus professor at the Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, and one of the authors, in 1982, of a Society for Research into Higher Education/Leverhulme report on two-year degrees, notes that in the 1970s "there was beginning to be widespread graduate unemployment". From his perspective, two-year degrees can provide better preparation for employment by offering two years of more general education, followed (for those who wish to stay on) by two years of more specialised learning, instead of sending all graduates into the job market with more academic degrees.

Williams says he was one of the few to "link higher education with employment" in those days. "Right up until the late 1980s, higher education was largely (seen as) a matter of personal development."

Then, as now, university admissions and social mobility were a preoccupation for the sector. In a piece published in January 1972, Maurice Peston, father of the BBC journalist Robert, called for admissions quotas to guarantee access for comprehensive-school pupils. Peston, then a professor of economics at Queen Mary, University of London and now a Labour peer, argued that pupils from selective schools gained unfair advantage through smaller class sizes and spoon-feeding by teachers. As he did "not believe, on the evidence of their past behaviour" that the universities would "take the lead" on this issue, he argued that a quota system was needed.

Debates about the role of the private sector featured prominently. The early THES provided regular updates on moves to establish what was then known as the Independent University (later the University of Buckingham), an institution that reportedly aimed to launch with £15 million of private funding and charge students fees of £1,000 a year.

While the publication remained objective in its news reporting, reviewer Bernard Crick took exception to a book edited by the secretary to the Independent University's planning board, titled University Independence: the Main Questions. Crick called the book "propaganda", adding that "the source of funding - and a fear of or contempt for 'the state' - seem the sole source of agreement between the contributors". Terence Kealey, who is now vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, recalls that his institution initially met with "enormous hostility from the rest of the sector". He likens this to "the way people are now attacking A.C. Grayling's New College of the Humanities, or BPP".

Two figures who would dominate world politics in the 1980s loomed large in the THES in 1971. From the US, where Ronald Reagan was governor of California, came news that the "end of the golden age for higher education in California" was at hand. Academics at the state's public universities were "denied a customary cost-of-living raise by the legislature and governor Ronald Reagan for the second year in a row. Faculty members are now being accused by Mr Reagan and others of not working hard enough," the THES reported.

In the UK, Thatcher, who was education secretary from 1970 to 1974, was another powerful presence - as much for her personality as her policies. A THES diary piece recorded that she was overheard to say, when meeting the head of a polytechnic at a social function, "Oh dear, not another polytechnic director with an inferiority complex". The THES also reported on "measures to inhibit the freedom of student unions which (the National Union of Students) suspects are being prepared by Mrs Thatcher".

Her battles with unions as prime minister were foreshadowed by a campaign against the NUS via plans - eventually shelved after opposition from vice-chancellors - to make individual student membership voluntary rather than automatic.

The NUS, whose leader in 1971 was Jack Straw, a future Labour Cabinet minister, agitated for left-wing causes and often organised campus strikes, making it unpopular with many Conservative MPs.

Thatcher presided over Buckingham's official opening in 1976 and served as its chancellor between 1992 and 1998. Kealey, who was an acquaintance, says she "has always been hated - that word is not too strong - by the higher education sector...She was hated because she never hid her belief in the market." He adds: "She was always opposed to the trade unions, and the NUS was very much a trade union. She did not believe in closed shops; she believed that there should be a voluntary contribution for students, a right to opt in or out of the trade unions."

Kealey argues that Thatcher's later decisions on higher education as prime minister were a shaping influence on the sector - including the decisions to abolish the taxpayer subsidy for overseas students and introduce tuition fees. "The universities were totally opposed to this," Kealey explains. "But lo and behold, foreign student numbers shot up and income from those students shot up. She thought that if the market worked for international students, it could work in other areas."

This demonstrated to Thatcher that the universities "didn't even know where their own interests lay", Kealey says, leading her to lose respect for the sector.

Leafing through the THES archives, you might search expectantly for another well-known name, Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens arrived at the THES from the University of Oxford as a Trotskyist tearaway, and would go on to write for the New Statesman and Vanity Fair, shock the Left with his support for the Iraq war, and blaze a path for the New Atheism. Here are the opening lines from one of his THES pieces in the first issue: "The long and acrimonious dispute over the position of Mr Richard Atkinson at the University of Birmingham has taken a new turn with the publication of an open letter to Professor Walter Baldamus from Mr Stuart Hall."

His next contribution boasted an equally snappy start: "In June 1970, Birmingham University Medical School completed the first of its final-year course assessments to be based on continuous review." Hitchens, who was later sacked, would comment on his time at the THES: "I sometimes think if I'd been any good at that job, I might still be doing it."

Long-running rows on the letters page are an institution at the publication, and the very first kicked off with the THES' first issue. It was prompted by the first THES columnist, Robert Jackson - a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who would go on to become a Conservative higher education minister in the Thatcher government - after he attempted a definition of "higher education".

Jackson said the phrase "suggests a distinction between higher and further education" and "implies the familiar distinction between practical and technical knowledge". The Open University, founded in 1969, typified recent developments in higher education, he lamented, by showing that "human relations are no longer necessary in a university".

In the second issue, letter writer Gerald Fowler, who had served as Labour education minister in 1969-70, welcomed Jackson's first effort by praising his "unrivalled genius for pompous and misleading vacuity".

Jackson had "sneered" at The Open University, Fowler said, before concluding with the sort of eloquent insult that still characterises the best letters to the magazine. "To attempt to describe the academic community from Mr Jackson's All Souls is rather like writing of the sociology of metropolitan France from the fastness of Timbuktu." Jackson sought to smooth things over in his column in the next issue. He had not meant to sneer at The Open University. He had simply meant that it was "a dangerous state of affairs that it should be regarded as a university at all". Outraged letters from defenders of The Open University poured in for weeks.

Issues of standards and status also featured prominently in early articles about the divide between polytechnics and universities. Headlines included "Distrust of polytechnics' standards 'irrational and unscholarly'" and "Polytechnics must not hanker after medieval status".

Another story reports (with a note of surprise) that "a significant proportion of polytechnic staff are as well qualified as their (university) counterparts".

Williams notes that in the 1970s, the question of polytechnic standards versus university standards was "a subject of enormous controversy".

"But the official position was that the criteria for gaining a polytechnic degree were to be at least as rigorous as those for getting a university degree," he adds.

Pay was not quite on a par, however. In 1971, lecturers' salaries at polytechnics started at £1,375 and rose to a maximum of £4,045 for principal lecturers.

But in the universities, the equivalent posts attracted salaries of £1,491 and £4,407, a source of resentment for polytechnic staff.

Today, critics of the current government's new fees and funding system often complain that the higher education sector has divided into mission groups and failed to mount a unified defence of public funding for universities ahead of the coalition's spending cuts.

But looking back to a sector split between polytechnics and universities, it seems that division and divergence have always been present.

Jackson, who went on to develop the first student loans during his time as a minister, used his first THES column to praise academics for showing "encouragingly little sense of belonging to the...higher education community", and instead attaching to their particular discipline or institution.

"Now they have acquired a weekly newspaper to mirror their commendable professional disunity," he wrote. "Long may they both continue."

How Times Higher Education viewed five events that shaped the sector

Margaret Thatcher

1981: Thatcher government cuts university funding

In March, a government White Paper proposed a sharp reduction in higher education funding for the coming three years amounting to an 11 per cent cut in 1981-82. The move followed the Conservatives' decision to end taxpayer subsidies for overseas students and introduce fees.

A THES leader reacted to the White Paper by warning that the loss of income on such a scale would be disastrous for universities, and "the damage certainly to their quality and probably to their integrity would be immense".

However, it argued that while the cuts were "absorbable", the "real danger to most universities remains the financial vicissitudes created by higher fees for overseas students".

Universities should mount unified public opposition to government policies, the THES said, adding that deflecting the cuts to the polytechnics would not be "an honest or sufficient defence of the universities". But they should also put tenure and student support "firmly on the agenda of reform".

The public would not be sympathetic to "a university system that all too often appears privileged, rigid and inward-looking", the leader contended.

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, says the 1981 cuts "changed the nature of the game between higher education and the government, and led to ever-more government control", ending the system of universities obtaining funding "without many questions being asked".

1986: The research assessment exercise is born

Under orders from the government, the University Grants Committee (a precursor to the higher education funding councils for England, Scotland and Wales) separated the funding of teaching from that of research - with the latter to be decided on a selective basis through assessment of academics' work.

This would be "make or break" for universities, a THES leader predicted, as the UGC deliberated on its awards.

"During the next few weeks the UGC will decide whether (universities) face secure or exiguous futures, whether they can maintain a traditional balance between teaching and research across a comprehensive range of disciplines or whether they will be forced into cruel choices.

"In the history of Britain's universities the spring of 1986 will almost certainly come to be regarded as a decisive time when irreversible steps were taken towards the creation of a stratified system."

1990: Top-up loans introduced for student maintenance

The Thatcher government froze the student maintenance grant and introduced a top-up loan element administered by the Student Loans Company.

The THES criticised vice-chancellors, who submitted their own unsuccessful plans for a higher education-administered loans system, for accepting "the contentious party-political doctrine that pseudo-market relations are the only moral ones".

"There are many people who had hoped that vice-chancellors would offer more ringing leadership on this issue, as on many others," a leader article said, adding: "It is naive to imagine that, once the principle of direct charging had been conceded, a valid distinction could be sustained between student support and tuition fees or, indeed, between higher education and other forms of education.

"Perhaps there should be a surcharge on those with A levels or even GCSEs?"

1998: Labour brings in tuition fees across the UK

Following the Dearing report's recommendation that higher education students should pay around 25 per cent of the cost of their tuition, upfront fees capped at £1,000 were introduced and the maintenance grant abolished for 1998-99.

A THES leader lamented that the Dearing report - which, like the Browne Review, was announced before an election and delivered shortly afterwards - had been a success for Whitehall and Westminster.

"Fees have been introduced without having been an election issue. Large sums of money are being saved by passing on costs to students."

But universities had their autonomy reduced and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals - the predecessor to Universities UK - had failed to put up a fight, the THES argued.

The CVCP was "unwilling to frighten the government" by challenging it and yet "has not persuaded government into generosity by being helpful".

The "gentlemen's club" of the CVCP had to go. "Higher education needs a more effective voice that mobilises all the creative talent available - and it needs it soon."

David Willetts

2011: The coalition's White Paper promises radical change for England

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, set out a plan to open a quarter of university places for students to full competition. It promised to look at changing the rules governing degree-awarding powers and university title to make it easier for private companies, further education colleges and providers from overseas to enter the new market.

Ann Mroz, editor of Times Higher Education, criticised "a technical document focused on student number control, driven primarily by an attempt to pressure universities to reduce their fees by opening 20,000 student places to competition on price with new, alternative higher education providers from the private sector, further education or even schools.

"Some see in this the start of a race to the bottom, with student places yanked away from solid universities and presented to new providers simply because they are cheaper. That is not good for UK higher education," she said.

When being chased round a desk was par for the course

Susan Bassnet

When I started my academic career as a young lecturer in Rome in 1968, there was a strict dress code; women were forbidden to wear trousers and even doing dozens of exams in July (all exams were orals) we had to cover our shoulders.

That was bad enough in an age of miniskirts, but it had been even worse for an earlier generation. My tutor, as a young lecturer at Oxford, had managed to conceal not one but three pregnancies from her male head of department, wrapping herself in her gown and hiring students to push her babies' prams around while she gave tutorials. Motherhood and academe were judged then to be incompatible.

Looking back over 40 years, I recall all kinds of behaviour that today would be unacceptable. I was interviewed for a job once and asked whether I didn't think it reprehensible for a woman to put a small child in a nursery.

I sat on interview panels where women were grilled about their husbands' views on their commuting, and my questions about the propriety of such interrogations were met with blank incomprehension.

As for sexual harassment: I have been groped by older distinguished academics countless times, been assaulted in a lift by a drunken colleague and been chased (literally) round a desk by another.

I was once stalked for three days at an international conference by a lunatic (though himself a famous scholar) who left little notes for me and finally presented himself on the last day, suggesting that I might like to go away with him for the weekend.

Since such behaviour was pretty well par for the course, one accepted it as part of life and dealt with it, in my case with heavy irony, the occasional slap and some choice four-letter words.

Far more serious than men who couldn't keep their hands to themselves was the professional inequality that kept coming to light. I remember my shock when someone in my area, promoted several years after me, with fewer publications, revealed that he was going to take up a chair in the States because of the pathetic salary he was being paid in England. When he told me what that pathetic figure was, I realised he was earning far, far more than I was and felt outraged.

Over the years I was a token woman in all sorts of ways: first female professor in the arts at Warwick, then first female pro vice-chancellor. When my university appointed its 20th female professor, I hosted a celebratory lunch and we discussed how to help other women move up the promotional ladder.

A point I was made aware of very early on is that more men than women go to vice-chancellors to argue their own case as special, and men feel more able to change universities and commute, something that women with children in school are less inclined to do. Women are also less likely to apply for top jobs. Today, there are a number of excellent women vice-chancellors and pro vice-chancellors, but fewer than one might wish. The professoriate, even in areas where there is a predominantly female student body, is still male dominated. Regardless of whether they have children or not, the burden of caring for elderly parents tends to fall on women's shoulders too, and that often happens just at the point when a top job might be in the offing.

Today there is greater awareness of inequality all round, and the sort of crude, laddish behaviour of 20 years ago is less evident, so I conclude that there has been some progress, but I still see women juggling home and career. The struggle goes on.

Susan Bassnett is professor of comparative literature, University of Warwick.

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