Ten years on from the end of binary divide in higher education, Claire Sanders assesses the successes and failures of new universities in a united sector
Ten years ago Liverpool Polytechnic declined to become the University of Merseyside, Hatfield Polytechnic narrowly avoided becoming Hatfield University and Nottingham Polytechnic, sadly, passed up on Sherwood University Nottingham.
The binary line, so often compared with the Berlin Wall, had dissolved and, in the words of one commentator, "the class of '92 will be pioneers in a brave new world of higher education".
Ten years on from the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, Kenneth Clarke, Tory education secretary at the time, is bullish. "The ending of the binary divide was an obvious step to take and with all the benefit of hindsight I would make the same decision today," he said. "The polytechnics would have been described as universities in any other country in the western world." Introducing the 1991 white paper that heralded the changes, then prime minister John Major said the end of the divide would "build on our plans to transform education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds by removing the barriers between the academic and vocational streams".
But has the unified higher education sector been a success? There are concerns that the class of 1992 and higher education as a whole have suffered from the ending of the binary divide.
John Marenbon, medieval philosophy fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, and contributor to think-tank Politeia's publications, said it was a terrible mistake. "Conservative politicians, as much as Labour ones, believed in the nonsense about making vocational education of equal esteem to academic education," he said.
A more important question was whether polytechnics should have existed at all, he said. "I think the government should have been concerned to see that there existed high-quality academic education for a very small elite, and that there was good vocational training for those who wanted, closely linked to the workplace."
Politeia has just produced a comparative study of 16-to-19 education in the UK, Europe and the US. "Other countries have very effective apprenticeship systems and we can learn from them," Dr Marenbon said.
Criticism of the 1992 act also comes from within new universities. John Pratt, professor of institutional studies at the University of East London, said: "For the former polytechnics, the anxiety to achieve university titles could have been an expensive vanity." He said the end of the divide was "the most monumental example of academic drift in British educational history".
The Committee of Directors of Polytechnics argued in discussions with ministers in 1991 that a unified system would allow polytechnics to offer a "real challenge" to universities. They said it would lead to open competition on price, quality and access that would open up universities.
Professor Pratt believes this was wildly optimistic. "Growth has been stifled, the funding system has revealed that, apparently, their teaching costs are not substantially lower than the traditional universities', and they have not sailed as effortlessly through teaching quality assessments as they might have. Their long-awaited access to research funding resulted in a gain of only a few per cent of funding council monies. The unified system is informally stratified, rather than diverse," he said.
Professor Pratt said that as polytechnics, these institutions had been able to fight for a distinctive form of education. "The absence of such a philosophy for the new mass system of higher education helps to allow traditional values, and the institutions that embody them, to dominate," he said. The loss of the CDP meant new universities had no one to lobby for them.
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and chief executive of the CDP in 1992, while supporting the end of the binary divide, shares some of Professor Pratt's reservations.
"Once polytechnics left local authority control in 1988 it was inevitable that they should become universities," he said. "But at some point - probably before incorporation - there should have been a discussion about what type of higher education system was wanted."
He said lack of thought about the shape of post-16 education had implications today. "We are now talking about different roles for different institutions because we did not have that debate then. Dearing failed to address those issues - he should have asked what was being funded, not just how it should be funded."
Dr Brown also agreed that the loss of the Council for National Academic Awards, which validated degrees outside universities, had hampered innovation. He said: "Accountability took over from enhancement."
One of the great successes of the former polytechnics was the development of modular structures, which were eventually adopted by most old universities.
But most commentators believe that the ending of the binary divide was inevitable and right. In a lecture at the University of the West of England this week to mark the tenth anniversary, Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University, set out to puncture the "heroic myth" of a "golden age" of polytechnics.
"The polytechnics performed a very special trick: of bringing the values associated with subjects and disciplines together with those associated with professions and vocation. Turning the polytechnics into universities represented a huge bet. This bet was against academic drift of the type that accompanied the Robbins reforms, and has been amply rewarded," he said.
The fate of new universities has been, according to Sir David, a complicated one. A 2001 statistical study by Brian Ramsden and Nigel Brown for the Coalition of Modern Universities compared the situation of new universities with old universities.
"In subject terms there has been some measure of convergence," Sir David said. Traditional universities have moved into the applied and regional provision. And some former polytechnics and colleges have transformed their teacher-training resources into traditional humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.
"On size, growth and funding for teaching (once corrected for subject mix) the two sub-sectors have respectively caught up and levelled down," Sir David said. Vice-chancellors of new universities have argued strongly that this has not meant mission drift.
Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK and provost of London Guildhall University, said Guildhall had kept its vocational strengths. "I was provost of the City of London Polytechnic in 1992 so I can chart the changes and there has been no mission drift. LGU has strong departments teaching furniture and musical instrument-making as well as silversmiths. Degrees and postgraduate degrees have been introduced to new areas of study."
Geoffrey Copland, rector of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, said: "The slogan mission drift is interesting. It implies that any evolution of the work of the post-92 sector is somehow deemed to be unacceptable. In many ways, the mission drift in part of the pre-92 sector has been greater as they have moved more firmly into vocationally oriented degrees and local partnerships."
Sir David also argued that financial stewardship was stronger in new universities despite their lack of reserves and endowments - with fewer in deficit. "I suspect that the reasons for this divergence are largely psychological: an attitude held by vice-chancellors of the relatively independent former universities that government would provide (as in expenditure against anticipated returns from the research assessment exercise), can be contrasted with the much lower expectations of eventual government bail-out on the part of the few remaining polytechnic directors," he said.
But where there is a huge difference is in terms of research income. "This is despite the post-1992 institutions having improved their gross income for research by per cent; there has been precious little catching up and certainly no levelling down," Sir David said.
A more recent study by Mr Ramsden and Mr Brown for the Universities UK longer-term strategy group, headed by Sir David, shows that new university research income grew from 4.6 per cent to 5.8 per cent of total income in this period. Old universities with medical schools saw this proportion increase from 33.1 per cent to 39.1 per cent. Old universities without medical schools remained stable, the percentage going from 23.1 per cent to 23.3 per cent.
But this situation would hardly have improved if new universities had remained polytechnics. Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, said: "New universities are strong in applied research funded by employers. There was always going to be a spectrum of universities, with some more research focused and others stronger on teaching."
Mr Clarke said: "I never envisaged that every university would do research. The distribution of research monies should be according to the quality of the research."
Sir David argued that new universities "emphatically maintain their edge on class and on local service", that is enrolling local students. But the picture is complicated by changes in student support and supply and demand patterns.
Mr Clarke said: "John Major and I were always totally opposed to the introduction of tuition fees and the loss of grants. This has undermined the access mission of the old polytechnics."
The Higher Education Funding Council for England's consultation document, Supply and Demand in Higher Education , out last October, looked at the impact of changing patterns of student demand on old and new universities. The changes are driven by demography, the employment market and new school exams as well as student funding.
"New universities and colleges grew very rapidly in the earlier part of this [15-year] period, and have suffered declines over the past few years. Others, mainly pre-1992 universities, have experienced a much slower but steady growth throughout the period, which has not been interrupted by the recent falling off of overall demand," it says.
In new universities there was growth of just 1 or 2 per cent in full-time student numbers from 1996-97 to 1997-98, and since 1997-98 there has been no growth at all. In 2000-01 there was actually a decrease (less than 1 per cent) in the number of full-time students at new universities. New universities that had grown by more than 200 per cent from 1989-95 have since had to manage reductions averaging 16 per cent from 1995 to 2000. The impact on a number of new universities has been severe, and mergers are on the cards.
But other new universities have not been hit by falling demand and continue to challenge many old universities. This year's The Times league table once again saw Oxford Brookes, Plymouth, Nottingham Trent, Northumbria, West of England and Hertfordshire challenging Brunel, Bradford, Bangor, Goldsmiths, Lampeter and Salford.
Sir David concluded that new universities simply "did more with less". It is a point that Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, picked up. "Both Conservative and Labour wanted to increase student numbers dramatically but did not want to fund this properly. Against this, the achievements of the new universities in the last ten years are impressive - but could have been so much better."
From poly to university
1966 A white paper set out the Labour government's intention to establish polytechnics in England and Wales. Thirty were set up from 1968-73. They were to concentrate on courses with a vocational emphasis, offer part-time and sub-degree and full-time and sandwich courses, and be run by local education authorities.
1988 The Education Reform Act gave polytechnics corporate status. A Polytechnics and College Funding Council was to allocate funds.
The Act also established a Universities Funding Council to replace the Universities Grants Committee.
1991 A white paper, containing a new framework, proposed new funding structure for universities, polytechnics and colleges of higher education - polytechnics would be allowed to use the title university. 1992 The Further and Higher Education Act unified higher education in England and Wales, as did the corresponding act in Scotland.
The Council for National Academic Awards, which validated degrees outside universities since 1965, was to close.
New unis: the verdict
"The [former polytechnics'] contribution to the expansion of higher education in the past has been essential, and we look forward to their contribution in the future."
Margaret Hodge , higher education minister
"The new universities have been very successful in opening a wide range of new opportunities in HE. They have contributed to the health and vitality of the sector and have been significant contributors towards the growth in student numbers. They have led the way in widening access to disadvantaged students."
Rama Thirunamachandran , acting director for institutions, Hefce
"It was right to end the binary divide, and the government should now end the divide between FE and HE."
Mandy Telford , president-elect NUS
"In terms of student satisfaction, employability and contributions to industry and the community the sector is doing well. It was good for all universities that the binary divide ended."
Roderick Floud , president of Universities UK
Next week : Parents who studied at an old poly and their children who studied at a new university compare and contrast.