Past is prologue

Critics, take note: the archives teach us that the academy's 'golden age' had plenty of commonalities with today, Nick Hillman says

April 19, 2012

Most thorny questions about our education system have been considered before - yet today's policy debates rarely reflect this. Without looking back, we risk reinventing the wheel or repeating past mistakes. So I have been spending time delving into old papers in the National Archives in Kew. They reveal some surprising facts about our academy.

 For example, the archives divulge that there was clear support for student loans much earlier than is commonly supposed. A 1964 Treasury note portrays the Robbins report on higher education (published in 1963) as an argument for loans, calling for changes that "would pave the way towards the introduction of loans for students on the lines envisaged in the Robbins report". The final text of the report was actually equivocal on loans, but Susan Howson's recent biography of Lionel Robbins confirms that the Treasury's interpretation was correct: the committee's internal deliberations concluded that loans might become "acceptable in about ten years' time".

So the documentary evidence suggests that government-subsidised loans are an example of the progressive universalism of the post-war welfare state, in which everyone gets something but those with the most get less. Perhaps if they had been adopted earlier, more people could have benefited from higher education in the 1970s and 1980s - or the unit of resource could have enjoyed more protection.

Second, the archives suggest that you have to travel further back than is generally supposed to find an age of unbridled university autonomy. According to the European University Association, English institutions have substantially more autonomy today than those elsewhere. In some important respects, they are also notably more autonomous than in the decades after the Second World War. This is obviously true for former polytechnics, which came under the oversight of local authorities, and institutions such as The Open University that were funded directly by central government rather than an arms-length funding council. But more surprisingly, it is also true for other parts of the sector.

Turning higher education from an elite activity into a mass one necessitated conversations at the top of government about which institutions should expand and how. The Robbins report criticised institutions that refused "to co-operate in national policies or to meet national emergencies", but the detail of the discussions is staggering from today's perspective. For example, in the mid-1960s, officials at the Department of Education and Science corresponded with the Treasury about the scale of the University of Birmingham's refectory extension and whether or not Keele University should have a new running track.

The University Grants Commission is commonly regarded as more hands-off than later funding bodies, but it held enormous sway over decisions made within universities. Until the 1970s, the building of halls of residence tended to depend on its rulings. There was genuine surprise when new residential accommodation continued to appear at a similar rate after the UGC withdrew its financial support.

Third, the records suggest that the immediate reaction to any higher education policy is a poor guide to how that policy will come to be seen. Many people think of the 1960s, just after the publication of the Robbins report, as the glory days of UK universities. The Education Act 1962 delivered mandatory student support for the first time and the sector was growing fast, with far more students and far more money.

Yet stored away in an old file in Kew is an exchange of letters from that time between an academic at Newcastle University and Quintin Hogg, the minister of education. The academic, a Professor Russell, warned of "the almost universal attitude of cynicism with which each reported announcement of universities is received". Hogg replied that "this is the kind of thing best calculated to hamper me in my work, which I am sure you do not wish to do". Undaunted, the scholar wrote back, noting: "All is not well in the universities - as the recent rash of departures, resignations and public statements show."

In contrast, the cuts of the early 1980s are often regarded as a low point for higher education. Yet a recent article in the pages of Times Higher Education ("Searing honesty", 9 February) by Jon Baldwin, a university administrator who started his career in that era, claimed: "Those were heady days in higher education...Something was happening and it was a pleasure and privilege to be part of it." So policymakers today should keep their eyes on the longer-term results as well as any immediate reactions.

One of the challenges facing those who work on higher education policy is how rarely the sector blows the dust off its own history. The National Archives are a wonderful resource to help fill that deficit.

Nick Hillman is special advisor to David Willetts, minister for universities and science

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