1964 revisited: lessons from the history of Mr Poly

May 16, 1997

How to shape HE: John Pratt highlights key issues for the new Government

A Labour government is elected after years out of office; it faces the problem of accommodating vastly increased numbers of students, but within tightly constrained resources; it wants higher education relevant to the economy and employment, and accessible to students who might not in the past have received it; a national committee of inquiry has just repor-ted. The circumstances facing Baroness Blackstone, the new minister of state in 1997? Actually, they were those of the Labour government elected in October 1964.

In little over six months, the secretary of state for education and science, Anthony Crosland, announced policies that sought, in the words of the leading civil servant dealing with them, "to reverse a hundred years of educational history". Labour created the polytechnics.

The polytechnics went on to transform higher education in the next quarter century. By 1990, even the Conservative secretary of state John McGregor acknowledged that they were "put simply . . . one of the country's major education success stories", and, paradoxically, they acquired university titles under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. The first full history of the polytechnics has just been published (The Polytechnic Experiment, John Pratt, OUP, Pounds 65). What are the lessons for the new government from their short but controversial existence?

The polytechnics established the legitimacy of a different tradition in higher education from the "autonomous" search for truth of the universities. The "binary" policy, announced by Crosland in April 1965, rejected the assumption of the 1963 Robbins report that higher education was broadly synonymous with full-time university education. A separate public sector of higher education in England and Wales was to be based on the technical and other colleges. The technical college tradition was concerned less with knowledge for its own sake than with useful knowledge. The aim was to meet the increasing demand for vocational, professional and industrial-based higher education.

The polytechnics made possible the system of mass higher education that Labour has now inherited. Following a white paper in 1966, the first 30 polytechnics, formed from over 50 existing colleges, were designated as the leading institutions of the public sector (four more polytechnics were designated between 1989 and 1992). They were to be "comprehensive academic communities" offering part-time as well as full-time courses, at sub-degree as well as degree level. They were expected to offer economies of scale. They were to remain under the control of local authorities. Apart from the role of local authorities, these aims are not widely different from those of the unified system today.

By 1992, the number of higher education students in polytechnics had grown by about five-fold from 1965, twice the rate of the universities in England and Wales. By 1992 the polytechnics had become the larger sector in higher education. They had, as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development put it, become a "significant alternative" to the universities. They were comprehensive; in 1991 they had twice as many part-time students as the universities, and nearly four times as many sandwich students. They had expanded substantially at postgraduate level, while maintaining (though not expanding) sub-degree work.

The polytechnics showed how to expand access to new kinds of students. They were particularly successful in increasing numbers of women, students from ethnic minorities, mature students and those without traditional entry qualifications. A higher proportion of their graduates than those from universities entered employment, particularly in engineering and manufacturing.

By 1992 the polytechnics had redrawn the "map of learning". They established a wide range of subjects as appropriate for higher education, created new patterns of courses, and made a substantial contribution to developing student-centred learning. Degree courses in subjects such as librarianship, business studies and the performing arts had not hitherto been available. Modularity soon became associated with the polytechnics. They extended sandwich courses into the social sciences and business. They had demonstrated that many assumptions about the nature of higher education could be challenged. They showed it was possible to offer higher education at much lower cost than previously to increasing numbers of different kinds of people in different ways.

The development of the polytechnics affected the universities, too, resulting in a convergence. Although the polytechnics moved away from some of the purposes set for them, the universities began to acquire some of the traditional characteristics of the polytechnics, for example, developing modular courses and recruiting non-traditional students.

It is Baroness Blackstone's good fortune to be able to build on this legacy of a previous Labour administration. But every silver lining has its cloud. The polytechnics' history shows how governments came to exercise more central control over the development of the higher education system than ever before. Many of the features of constraining funding mechanisms were pioneered in the polytechnics. Although the polytechnics showed how higher education can respond to market forces and expand on demand, this was achieved at the price of penury. We may now have mass higher education, but it is higher education on the cheap. It is often futilely competitive, and mindlessly managerial.

One challenge will be to ensure that adequate funds for its future development are available. Acting now on new forms of student finance must be a priority. Even more challenging is to learn the lessons of excessive central control. The responsibility for devising a higher education suitable for the majority of the age group in the 21st century will reside with the institutions, and their staff and students. The problems cannot be solved in Whitehall, in the funding councils or quality agency. Labour has inherited a higher education system, much of its own making, able to address this task; there are many lessons from the history of the polytechnics to draw on. Do not let Labour ruin it.

John Pratt is professor anddirector of the centre forinstitutional studies at the University of East London.

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