Trends in HE: Status: more than just a name

September 20, 2002

As new universities celebrate their tenth birthday, John Pratt mourns the loss of the genuinely innovative polytechnics

It is ten years since former polytechnics became universities, but any celebration should be muted. For while there undoubtedly have been achievements in the new-university sector, there are concerns about its strength and recognition.

New universities can acclaim their growth in the past ten years. The 33 English ex-polytechnics had more than 620,000 higher education students in 2000-01, approximately the same as English old universities. They can point to the maintenance of vocationally oriented degree courses, to their many part-time courses, and to greater access than old universities to students from lower socio-economic groups, 34 per cent against 20 per cent. Some have a growing research reputation. Yet they appear at the bottom of most league tables, gain only a few per cent of research assessment exercise funding, and are struggling to attract applicants. In many respects, they are the second division of the university sector. It would be hard to find many people in the sector who wish to relinquish the university title, but there is a question whether they would have been better-off as first-class polytechnics than second-class universities. Experience from other countries indicates that universities are not always the favoured sector. In Finland, for example, applicants to polytechnics outnumber those to universities by about 50 per cent.

When the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act was passed, the polytechnics were the politically favoured sector. They had expanded rapidly in the 1980s, at ever-reducing unit costs, making them highly popular with the Conservative government. This success was not, however, enough for the polytechnics and particularly their directors, who, although freed from local authority control in 1989, still hankered for university status.

That this happened in 1992 was a surprise, as thinking in the then Department of Education and Science was that polytechnics needed a decade to settle down as independent institutions.

The directors' impatience had unfortunate consequences. The 1992 act was rushed through Parliament ahead of the general election. As a result, the polytechnics entered a unified system of higher education in which, in effect, they were playing to the other side's rules. There was limited scope for expansion - and old universities were best placed to attract extra students. The 1992 RAE was based wholly on quality assessment for the first time and, when funds for widening participation were introduced, they represented a tiny percentage of total funding. Although one aim was to maintain diversity, the act mainly achieved stratification.

Vice-chancellorial vanity was compounded by other provisions of the 1992 act, which abolished not only the polytechnic sector, but two important national advocates for the sector - the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council and the Council for National Academic Awards. Polytechnics had already lost the voice of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, which could now be seen only as a faction within the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK).

The PCFC had argued with the government over increased funding, even though it drove down unit costs (with the connivance of the institutions). It had begun to fund research and to remedy defects in capital provision.

The CNAA had established that vocationally oriented higher education could be both innovative and of undisputed standard. Although the CNAA's processes were tedious, by 1992 the polytechnics were accredited to validate their own courses.

So paradoxically, the polytechnics threw off the (by then) modest shackles of the CNAA only to find themselves in a much more demanding and complex world of quality assurance under the Higher Education Quality Council and assessment under the Higher Education Funding Council for England (and later of the Quality Assurance Agency). But these arrangements were created largely because of the government's wish to bring old universities to greater accountability. Had old universities been less precious about scrutiny by staff from the other sector, the CNAA could perhaps have continued with oversight for the whole system, and the labyrinthine torture of the QAA might have been avoided. The CNAA, for all its faults, did permit and indeed promote innovation, often to the admiration of council members from universities.

Although ex-polytechnics have maintained their distinctive course profile, there are few incentives to innovate in the QAA's dour world of paper-based policing of procedures and programmes. So just as we should celebrate the ten years' achievements of the new universities, we might also mourn the loss of one of the few genuinely innovative educational institutions of the last century.

John Pratt is professor of institutional studies at the University of East London and author of The Polytechnic Experiment 1965-1992, Open University Press, 1997.

Please see Higher education trends 2002  in the Statistics section for charts and tables giving a comprehensive picture of Britain's higher education system and its evolution over two decades.

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