Analysis: Silver linings for hardy survivors

July 6, 2001

Twenty years on from Tory spending cuts, Tony Tysome reports on the outcomes for those hardest hit.

It was higher education's equivalent of the Kennedy shooting: every academic can remember what he or she was doing at the time.

But the difference with the announcement of the "murderous" 1981 cuts was that most of those affected knew they were coming. They just did not expect them to be quite so severe.

The orders for cuts averaging 15 per cent over three years, issued in July, 20 years ago, originated from a Tory government that was seeing through a manifesto pledge to tighten public spending, department by department. It was left to a relatively unaccountable University Grants Committee to work out the details of how to share out the misery.

The axe cut deepest into four institutions: Bradford, Keele, Salford and Aston. All were forced into drastic action. Perhaps the most distinctive responses came from Salford and Aston, the two hardest hit with cuts of 43 and 32 per cent.

Malcolm Winton, Salford's registrar, who was working in personnel at the time, remembers the feelings he shared with his colleagues.

"There was an initial period of disbelief. Quite a lot of work had gone on in the previous months, preparing for cuts that we expected to be possibly as high as 20 per cent. But we wondered why we had bothered when they came in at 43 per cent," he said.

Michael Harloe, Salford's vice-chancellor who was then a sociology lecturer at the University of Essex, remembered: "It was a great shock. I went out to get the evening news because we (Essex) knew an announcement was going to be made. We were in the 'substantial cuts category' - the writing was on the wall."

Speculation was rife at the time and continues today over how the UGC arrived at its decisions on which institutions should bear the brunt of the cuts.

According to John Sanger, professor of mechanical engineering who has been at Salford for 35 years, the most convincing argument was that "there was a correlation between the universities which got off lightly and the number of members they had on the UGC and its committees".

Professor Harloe said: "No one expected it to be such a biased and put-up job. It was the most outrageous and bizarre decision. The government wanted the cuts, and just left the UGC to get on with it. It would not happen today, because, for better or for worse, the control of government over higher education is much stronger. In those days they did not tell the UGC which universities to cut. It led to the spectacle of a government led by a supposed scientist (Margaret Thatcher) bashing the scientific universities." Three of the top four were former colleges of advanced technology.

David Packham, Aston University's deputy vice-chancellor and secretary, believes that while the way the cuts were carried out was unjustified, the reasons behind their distribution were sound.

"I do believe there is some credibility in the argument that the institutions targeted for the worst cuts were all on the worry list because they had expanded rapidly, possibly at the expense of quality. In the case of Aston, at the time it was treading water and its A-level entry requirements were below average. Something had to give," he said.

There were significant differences in the way Aston and Salford responded to the unsavoury position they found themselves in, and the paths they chose - each under very single-minded leadership - led them to develop from their advanced college of technology roots into quite individual institutions.

In the case of Salford, the newly appointed and not yet installed vice-chancellor, John Ashworth, demanded an extrovert response. While staff numbers were to be cut by 30 per cent over three years, those who were left were expected to join in an institution-wide campaign to find external sources of funding, particularly through local commercial links and activities and overseas recruiting.

Dr Ashworth recalls that Salford became the first university to create a mission statement, then known as its "aims and objectives". Flying in the face of tradition and elitism, the mission set its sights on nurturing the "education for capability" movement, preparing its students to do real things in the real world of work "rather than just being able to analyse".

Dr Ashworth said: "I had copies of the aims and objectives printed for every member of staff and told them to keep hold of it at all times. Within a year or two, every paper referred to the aims and objectives."

These moves may not have been popular, but Dr Winton believes they were possible because the UGC's demands had brought about a determined community spirit within the university.

He said: "The UGC never gave any clear reasons for demanding such large cuts at Salford. Since this made it impossible for anyone in the university to take the blame, it created quite a unity in the institution against a common external enemy."

Salford reluctantly accepted it would have to cut student numbers, but the determination to grow remained. Numbers dropped from nearly 5,000 to 2,500, but by 1984 were back up to more than 4,000. By 1990, they were at 5,000, and in 1995-96 at 7,700. The institution now has more than 19,000 students.

Even though Dr Ashworth described the UGC's plans as "barking", in its defence he admits it was concerned for the welfare of students affected by the cuts. One of the factors determining where the axe fell was the presence of a neighbouring university that could take on students whose courses were closed.

At Aston, cutbacks were equally severe, even though the university's funding losses were not as bad as Salford's. The number of departments was reduced from 28 to nine, and student numbers dropped by about 1,000 from 4,700. Vice-chancellor Fred Crawford, whose close government contacts had given him the benefit of inside knowledge of the impending cuts, had decided that rationalisation was Aston's best course of action if it was to stand a chance of raising its standards and profile to build a more promising future.

His aim was to create a small, elite institution that would concentrate on raising standards across a very limited range of subject areas. This has continued to be Aston's governing outlook, and even today its student numbers only hover at around 6,000.

Mr Packham said: "The plan was to become a small high-quality institution, and to put a lot of emphasis on improving the entrance qualifications of students. We wanted to selectively prune, regroup and innovate."

Looking back at the decisions taken in 1981 in the face of the funding crisis of the time, it is possible to trace the path taken by each institution to their current positions and to see how the UGC's actions shaped their future. Salford and Aston are in the process of preparing strategic plans in an effort to reposition themselves in the higher education market. But they are still having to work from the foundations laid 20 years ago.

The most significant event since 1981 for Salford was its merger with the former University College Salford and the Northern College of Nursing and Midwifery five years ago.

Professor Harloe said: "That created quite an unusual institution because although some others had been taking over further education colleges, we became a kind of hybrid of an old university joined to a new university. There is no institution quite like us, which is why we are re-establishing our identity and mission."

Salford's aim is to re-establish itself in the market as an entrepreneurial, innovative university, boasting research and teaching excellence while maintaining close links with the local and regional community and industry. Professor Harloe is aware his institution is in an "awkward position", trying to avoid being caught between being seen as a "sort of an old university" and a "variant of a new university". He would ideally like to see Salford blaze the trail for a new niche in higher education: the "technological university". But he regrets that a more comfortable option is not open, thanks to the legacy of 1981.

"It was an extraordinary triumph that the university survived, but it was at a tremendous long-term cost. It meant we could not follow the trajectory of the other strong research-based institutions, because so many talented academic people had to turn their hand to commercial activity," he said.

Aston University put itself through a makeover shortly after the cuts, which meant academic reorganisation, knocking down 13 old buildings, providing new accommodation and planting 1,300 trees. Its entry requirements inched up from below to well above average, and its quality ratings improved.

By 1995, when the current vice-chancellor Michael Wright arrived at Aston, the consolidation model had become out of step with the rest of the system, which had been back in growth mode for several years. Aston cautiously "grew itself out of a financial problem", increasing student numbers by 20 per cent over the past six years, from about 5,000 to 6,000.

Now watching the dust settle after an abandoned effort to merge with the University of Birmingham, Aston chiefs are preparing a strategic plan, dubbed Project Forward. The plan, which will be subject to extensive internal consultation over the next year, will mean student numbers growing by another 20 per cent over the next five years as the university develops innovative courses from existing provision.

There is little appetite for sudden moves, particularly in the light of the response Aston received from its students to its merger plans.

Mr Packham said: "One of the things that really impressed us during the consultation on the merger was the way many of our students were worried about losing the distinctive nature of Aston University."

He acknowledged that had the 1981 cuts not happened, Aston would probably have become a much bigger institution "and would probably be suffering more financially than we are now".

While the events of 1981 were "traumatic", they may prove to have had a positive impact in the long run. Mr Packham said: "It was harsh and bloody and was not justified in the way it was done, but it forced institutions to face up to a number of things... The way we repositioned ourselves in response has fundamentally influenced the way we are now moving forward."

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