A bewildered tribe

October 19, 2001

As The THES turns 30, Simon Jenkins and Tariq Ali review three turbulent decades within and without academia.

After Margaret Thatcher lost power in 1990, her most revealing reflection was over her handling of the universities. She confessed that her "unintended centralisation" had led "many distinguished academics to think that Thatcherism meant a philistine subordination of scholarship to the Treasury". This had threatened "the future autonomy and academic integrity of universities". Such an outcome was never her intention, but like so many rulers she was toppled before she could rectify the mistake.

Nothing is more evocative of modern British government than the "nationalisation" of higher education in the last third of the 20th century. As nationalisations go, it has in crude terms been successful. "Sales" roughly tripled. Half of Britain's young people now experience post-school education.

New universities have brought their refreshing vitality to almost every city in Britain. They have drawn many students away from home and brought them within a nationwide academic environment, to a degree unprecedented since National Service, if not since the monastic revolution of the Middle Ages. But the traditional concept of the university has paid a heavy price.

Thirty years ago the universities enjoyed extraordinary institutional autonomy. They were beneficiaries of H. A. L. Fisher's University Grants Committee, of unmonitored subsidies and tenured employment. The 1963 Robbins report suggested a mild expansion, to some 8 per cent of school leavers, coinciding with those genteel innovations, the "pink-brick" universities. Academics did well from the expansion, with starting salaries comparable to those in the civil service, journalism, even commerce. As for the local authority polytechnics, the "binary" system was entrenched, the comprehensive ideal unthinkable in higher education. It could not last.

Sir Keith Joseph was the last education secretary to show any respect for academic autonomy. But his struggle to protect the UGC was in vain, nor could he persuade his prime minister that all academics were not turbulent priests, acolytes of a Marxist satan.

When Oxford University idiotically refused to award Mrs Thatcher the customary honorary degree, it was the end. She gave no quarter. Kenneth Baker's 1988 Education Reform Act abolished the UGC, ended tenure, instituted state planning of university finance and "comprehensivised" higher education. It was what in industry the tabloids would have called a "state power grab". It was among the most astonishing, and unreported, revolutions of the Thatcher era.

As an observer of universities since then, I have come to regard academics as vying with farmers in the whinge stakes. More would mean declining standards, falling incomes, rising staff-student ratios and a perpetual "crisis in morale". Some of this was true. Lecturers' pay is, on my calculation, roughly half of what it was in comparable terms when I briefly drew it. Staffing ratios, apart from Oxbridge, have plummeted. Spending per student fell by one-third in the 1990s alone. As a result, tutors in subjects such as business, law and accountancy are near impossible to find and teaching standards in some universities must be among the worst in Europe.

Yet universities in the 1970s were undeniably indulgent. Costs were barely controlled and standards unmonitored. Universities were led by academics whose gift for self-aggrandisement was matched only by their incompetence as managers. Tony Crosland said that for selfishness the Committee of Vice-Chancellors outstripped even the National Union of Mineworkers. More serious, no attempt was made to rationalise or coordinate research. Were there to be any expansion towards American levels of participation in higher education, the existing regime was unsustainable.

The assault on the universities from Whitehall and Westminster had good intentions. The government sought to end the class distinction between institutions and groups of institutions. It tried to ration research funds between an ever larger number of institutions and find some measure of "value for money". It wanted students properly taught throughout the sector, with some customer assessment. Universities were the first, and so far the only, testbed of a "voucher system" in the welfare state. Money followed the student. If the result was a rash of business, drama and media studies courses, so what? That was what the public wanted.

The trouble lay not in intention but in implementation. What should have been healthy tension between different tiers of leadership was subordinated to a mechanistic Treasury model of cost-effectiveness. The research assessment exercise was crass beyond belief. University quality control was always likely to be hard, but the attempt to quantify research "outputs" was and still is half-witted. More serious, political correctness distorted priorities. Allowing universities to charge fees but not fix their own defeated the voucher principle of consumer choice. It also greatly benefited London institutions able to attract foreign students paying uncapped fees. Colleges such as the London School of Economics are now virtually privatised.

Where this will lead is hard to predict. The uncapping of fees must come, and with it the silver lining of autonomy. The privatisation of Oxford, Cambridge and the big London universities is a matter of time. What form it will take is unclear, largely because the government does not know. In an extraordinary statement, the last education secretary, David Blunkett, implied that it would happen but not on his watch.

Indeed, the most remarkable phenomenon of the past 30 years has been the failure of universities to answer such questions themselves. They have never found a voice in which to debate their future, or even their present. Lobbying by vice-chancellors or shadowy cabals such as the Russell Group make no impact on policy. Universities seem like antique tribesmen unable to agree a strategy against a common enemy yet herded together in the same fortress. While the Treasury assaults them from one direction, half Britain's youngsters are advancing from another. They have no clue what to do. Thirty years ago they would have turned to their old friends, the politicians. Not any more.

Simon Jenkins is a columnist for The Times .

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