The collision of two worlds

December 5, 1997

It has been stormy and has gone on for centuries. Huw Richards charts the relationship between government and the universities.

EVER since universities were first set up they have had to fight to maintain their independence.

Thirteenth century: Oxford and Cambridge develop as self-governing guilds of masters of arts. This structure, similar to other medieval guilds, gives rise to the position whereby the MAs of each university - the Regent House in Cambridge, Congregation in Oxford - are in law the governing bodies.

They rapidly develop the defensive skill of playing church and crown off against each other, appealing to each for protection from the other.

Fifteenth century: Foundation of Scottish universities by papal bull - St Andrew's 1413, Glasgow 1451, Aberdeen 1494.

Sixteenth century: Cambridge and Oxford incorporated in 1571 by Act of Parliament, but retain self-governing guild structure.

1583: Edinburgh founded by Royal Charter.

Seventeenth century: King James II demands return of Oxford and Cambridge's charters in 1687. They refuse and James is deposed in 1688.

Nineteenth century: University College, London, in 1826, and King's College, in 1829, founded as shareholder companies, receive charter as University of London 1863.

1895: foundation of London School of Economics; becomes a limited company in 1901.

Twentieth century: foundation of University Grants Committee as a Treasury committee in 1919. Initial annual budget of Pounds 1 million. Its role was defined as: "To enquire into the financial needs of university education in the United Kingdom and to advise the government as to the application of any grants that may be made by Parliament to meet them." But until the middle of the second world war, universities are, in the words of Ernest Simon (1946) "one of the few remaining examples of almost complete laissez-faire" with the UGC consisting "almost exclusively of retired university professors".

1943: UGC duties extended "to collect, examine and make available information relating to university education throughout the UK".

1945: UGC issues first earmarked funding - for medicine following the recommendations of the Goodenough Committee.

1946: further UGC duty "to assist, in consultation with the universities and other bodies concerned, in the preparation and execution of such plans for the development of the universities as may from time to time be required in order to ensure that they are fully adequate to national needs".

1964: UGC transferred from Treasury to new Department for Education and Science.

1972-77: last period during which university funding is issued on a quinquennium (five-year) basis.

1981: UGC forced by government to administer cuts of 17 per cent over following three years.

1982: creation of National Advisory Body as planning body for polytechnics (abolished 1989).

1984: legislation on free speech on university campuses outlaws National Union of Students "No platform for Fascists" policy.

1988: Education Reform Act, creates universities and polytechnics and colleges funding councils. Secretary of state for education given power to direct funding councils. Opposition in both Houses of Parliament ensured he would have to take such directions to Parliament, gave the UFC the right to advise him and debarred the UFC from discouraging universities from raising outside funds. The Jenkins amendment in the House of Lords protected academics' right to question and test received wisdom.

1992: Further and Higher Education Act. Abolished binary line, created national unitary funding councils, removed colleges of further education from local government control, created quality assessment arrangements. The act created 35 new universities. Former Inner London Education Authority polytechnics continue as limited companies. Others became higher education corporations, but unlike pre-1992 universities, the body incorporated is the governing body rather than the university itself.

Government attempts to give secretary of state power to prohibit institutions offering specific courses or intervene in teaching and assessment of particular subjects abandoned following resistance by peers from all parties in House of Lords.

1994: Education Act 1994. Created Teacher Training Agency and limited activities of student unions. Attempt to extend powers of secretary of state dropped after opposition in House of Lords.

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