What a waste

October 18, 1996

Obliterating the binary line was a mistake, argues Mary Warnock. It ruined the vocational role of the former polytechnics and fatally debased the value of a university degree.

The binary line which used to separate polytechnics from universities was abolished in 1992 by an education act as far-reaching in its consequences as that of 1988, but less noticed. There were two steps in the abolition; first the two bodies newly set up to distribute funds to higher education were rolled into one funding council; and then, perhaps inevitably, virtually all the institutions so funded were deemed to be of the same status: all became universities.

Polytechnics and colleges of higher education (most of these formerly teacher training colleges which had "diversified") used to be lumped together, rather confusingly, as "the public sector". Funding them was the responsibility of local authorities. The polytechnics all awarded degrees (as did some of the colleges), but these degrees had to be validated externally, either by the Council for National Academic Awards or, less frequently, by a neighbouring university. The CNAA had been set up in the 1960s, at the time of expansion in both sectors of higher education, and was useful, indeed essential, in establishing a common standard among the degrees awarded by institutions that were not universities.

However, by the 1980s, it was widely felt that the whole apparatus of CNAA validation, with the visitations, piles of documentation, sometimes inept or unduly conservative inspections, had become too cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming. Many of the polytechnics believed themselves to be just as capable of awarding their own degrees and monitoring their own standards as the universities. The CNAA had begun to appear redundant, its initial function fulfilled. There were increasing anomalies, where the CNAA had difficulty in judging courses, the greatest experts on which were in the polytechnic that was subject to scrutiny. In 1984 a committee was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Norman Lindop, to advise the secretary of state on what should be done about validation.

The committee recommended that, according to certain fairly stringent criteria, some polytechnics should be allowed to award their own degrees forthwith. Others, which wanted to, could work towards satisfying the criteria and apply for independence in due course. There was already in existence by then a short-lived body to distribute funds to the institutions, the National Advisory Body. The CNAA was to be allowed to wither away gradually. This was the advice contained in the committee's 1985 report. It had nothing to say about what, if anything, should remain the difference between degree-awarding polytechnics and universities. In 1987 in a white paper on higher education, the government went further than the committee. It was proposed that all polytechnics and colleges with more than 350 students should become free-standing, appointing their own staff and managing their own budgets, though the CNAA would still validate their degrees. As part of the familiar campaign against local government, control of "the public sector" should be totally removed from local authorities, which would have to make over land and buildings to the institutions themselves.

Here was a great opportunity to take a new look at the purpose and functions of the non-university sector. There was already much talk, and much wringing of hands, about the need for a better qualified technical workforce. This would have been the time to ensure that the polytechnics, with their newly independent status, should provide for this workforce, at all levels, as they had been originally intended to do. That they had never fulfilled their original purpose was one of the educational disasters of the 1960s and 1970s. They had been allowed to succumb to what was known as Academic Drift.

Academic Drift was the name given to the tendency for polytechnics to offer CNAA degrees in subjects quite remote from science and technology. The CNAA was obliged to ensure that the courses and examinations in the subjects on offer were of roughly degree standard. They could sometimes, therefore, object to a course as being too narrow or too superficial or too much the brainchild of a single quirky teacher. (As chairman of the CNAA philosophy panel, I remember once turning down a course which would have had students examined at the end of three years in nothing except the early writings of Wittgenstein, with an optional half-paper in Frege.) What the CNAA had no power to do was to question whether it was the proper role of the polytechnics to lay on such courses at all. As long as there were students and teachers available, then there was nothing to stop the proliferation of courses in history, literature, anthropology, politics, sociology, drama I anything that a not very bright school-leaver who could not make it to university might want to spend three years studying. The inveterate snobbishness and laziness that made philosophy seem preferable to practical design or applied electronics fatally injured the polytechnics. It was easy to find teachers, aspirant academics from the 1960s boom, and easy to find students, who would come with grants to pay the teachers.

In 1987, the polytechnics ought to have been enabled to break away from all this. They should have been freed from local authorities, and from the CNAA, and have been allowed to seek funding only for that which they were supposed to do, and that which they did best, namely to provide education primarily in applied science and technology, and to undertake research in this area, in close liaison with industry. They should have taught subjects other than these only as was essential to their primary purpose; that is, they should have had courses in mathematics, languages, economics and management, but all against a background of the applied sciences. There was a genuine opportunity at this time for technical and practical education to become respectable, for centres of excellence to be established, and at last for something like parity of esteem to be created, the great polytechnics as prestigious and difficult to get into as the great universities. Their international connections would have been crucial; collaboration with industry being global, not local. They could have developed satellite colleges, for the running of induction courses, or short, part-time updating courses for industry; and they could have worked as equal partners with universities at the interface between the theoretical and the applied.

No such rethinking occurred. Instead of seizing the chance to differentiate the polytechnics from the universities, the very opposite decision was made, to obscure the differences, indeed, by implication to assert that there should be no differences, by calling them all by the same name. It is true that the binary line could never have been completely tidy, in that there already existed some universities, on their side of the line, which more or less specialised in the kind of subjects that would more properly belong in the new (or revitalised) polytechnics. But this would have been a minor anomaly, easily absorbed into the new system. It is true too that to restore the polytechnics to their rightful place would have taken time; humanities departments could not have been closed down overnight. A certain amount of retraining (from the teaching of German literature, say, to the teaching of German for students of electronics) as well as some redundancies would have had to be faced. But the results would have made it worthwhile.

The unification of the system has had, and is likely to have, various harmful effects. There is now no easy way of curtailing the growth of low-standard humanities courses, whose standard will decline still further, as the standard of A levels declines. Gillian Shephard has been heard to suggest that the perceived value of all BA degrees must be equal. She can hardly have thought that this miracle could be brought about by merely renaming the polytechnics; she must realise, indeed, that the value of a university degree at undergraduate level has been fatally debased. This in itself might not be too bad: we are already accustomed to valuing degrees from some universities more highly than those from others, and this kind of discrimination could simply become more widely applied and more readily understood, both here and abroad. No one in the United States would suppose for a moment that, in their own country all degrees are equal. The worse danger, however, is that the pecking order of universities may become formalised, a new line being drawn between teaching and research institutions. This would be extremely damaging not only to established universities, where the coexistence of teaching and research is part of their excellence, but to the serious ex-polytechnics as well. It is, if anything, even more essential for students of applied sciences to understand about, even be involved in research than it is for students of the pure sciences or the social sciences and humanities. Nothing could be more destructive of a spirit of enterprise and imagination than for students to be taught entirely by people whose inventive days are long behind them, if they ever existed.

Equally disastrous for higher education as a whole is the split that has inevitably occurred within the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. Admittedly that body has for years been extraordinarily feeble in its opposition to government treatment of the universities. A great deal too much fawning and trimming has gone on. But in theory at least it was a body which could frame a policy and present a united front. Now it is made up of a completely disparate group of people, some old-fashioned academic vice chancellors, others polytechnic-style administrators with, comparatively, huge salaries and little understanding of either the educational or the scholarly traditions of a university. All may unite in bemoaning the financial hardships of students; but this is not enough for the framing of a coherent policy.

I personally am deeply pessimistic about the future. It is impossible to undo what was done in 1992. There was no serious opposition to the destruction of the binary line, because there were too few people who actually cared at all what happened to higher education. There seems nothing left to do except cherish and preserve what pockets of excellence remain, whether in scholarship, in pure science or in the applications of science, keeping one's head down and waiting for a new generation of better-educated policymakers to emerge, perhaps in the middle of the next century. The universities have survived dark ages before, and may do so again.

Baroness Warnock is former mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.


Christopher Price

Director of Leeds Polytechnic 1986-94 and Tony Crosland's parliamentary private secretary when the polytechnic white paper was presented to Parliament.

"I did not think the change of polytechnics to universities mattered very much, but some of my colleagues were fanatical supporters. I said the change was in name only because it better reflected the work which we had been doing for ten years.

"Much of the work at the polytechnics was the same as the work at some universities, although the polys did other work like HND and HNC which the universities did not do.

"I was not one of those directors who campaigned to make the change. But I admired John Major's guts for doing it because he was standing up against a Department of Education lobby that did not want it to happen and a Treasury lobby that did, the latter because it was felt it would bring the university unit of resource down to that of the polytechnics.

"I was comparatively cool about it. I think Mary Warnock is being over-excited if she sees it as a terribly significant move at a time when all countries are shifting from elite to mass higher education. I don't think the name means a thing. The big decision was Fred Mulley's one in 1976 to extend the definition of higher education from what universities did to everything that polys did, including two-year diplomas and certificates."

Tessa Blackstone

Baroness Blackstone is master of Birkbeck, and principal opposition spokeswoman on foreign affairs in the House of Lords.

"The polytechnics by 1992 were making a very substantial contribution to higher education. There was a large number of degree level students, mainly undergraduates but a lot of polytechnics had masters courses as well, a few even had research students and the distinction between polytechnics and universities was not so great that it made sense to keep a separate system of funding and a quite separate designation.

"They were doing so much work on the teaching side which was of university standard I think it was quite appropriate that the decision was made to have a single system of higher education rather than one that was divided. I suspect that people like Mary Warnock are getting confused between the decision to make polytechnics universities and the effects of a very rapid expansion over a very short period of time. I don't think people distinguish adequately between them.

"I think that universities have different missions and within the old universities there are some with one kind of mission and some with another. To suggest that universities are entirely homogenous is a mistake and similarly there were differences in the polys and the extent to which they concentrated on certain kinds of vocational courses, the extent to which they were part time and so on.

"I don't think that anybody should have expected in the period after which we had a single system that there should be anything other than diversity and that's what there is and that diversity is very rich and should go on."

Peter Toyne

Professor Toyne is vice chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

"I did support the polytechnics becoming universities at the time. I was then vice chairman of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics and made my views known - as I think did all the directors of the then polytechnics. I have no reason in the interim to have changed my mind. Far from it. Everything that has happened since has confirmed my view how right the decision was.

"The then polytechnics had really grown and come of age, I do not mean grown physically necessarily, but they were offering a range of programmes which were very much degree standard; approved, validated and accredited by the CNNA, which itself supported the move because of the level and nature of the work that the polytechnics were doing. These were after all degree and postgraduate programmes. At that time, as now, the majority of the nation's graduates were coming through the polytechnics not the old universities. These were degree-awarding institutions, why should they have a different title? They were no longer sub-degree technics.

"Moreover, the word polytechnic elsewhere in the world meant something lower grade, lower in standard and lower in aspiration. Internationally the polytechnics were labouring very hard against a perception that they were not the same as universities.

"The majority of graduates by the late 1980s were then coming out of the polys and yet they were being rubbished as not as good as somebody from a proper university. We were creating a second-class set of citizens simply because of the label, not because of what they were. They were graduates like anyone else, they had properly accredited programmes where standards were being monitored and maintained in all the ways that the old universities did and more besides. How silly could you get when the product was of the same level and yet it had to use a different generic name?"

Pauline Perry

Baroness Perry is former director of South Bank Polytechnic, now president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

"I said it was a good thing but there are lots of things that should not have happened. For example, I do not think that the former polytechnics should have been given access to the research assessment exercise. That diminished the resources and therefore the quality of research in the old universities and at the same time diverted the ex-polys from the mission that I believe they were pursuing diligently and with success. The mission being to conduct applied research and not pure research and to be pragmatic, practical, applied institutions.

"I said at the time the bill received its second reading, fool that I was, that the polytechnics were not going to change their nature. But they were changing the definition of what a university is into something much broader and allowing excellence in diversity and diverse excellence. I would argue today that I think the degree in philosophy in Cambridge is one form of excellence, but there is another form of excellence which is quite different, yet does not need to be in any way downgraded which is an excellent degree in accounting or an excellent degree in retail management. Any modern society needs both.

"There is this knee-jerk reaction that having the polys as universities has somehow diminished the universities. I think that our country's economy needs the range of graduates that every other modern economy needs. As a country we should not be different from countries like France and the United States, Japan and so on which have long recognised this wide range of what a university is."

Clive Booth

Vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University.

"A large number of us who were on the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics at the time were strongly of the view that it was a sensible thing to do. I think it has been successful. It has increased competition.

"It has forced some of the old universities to become more polytechnic-like. I think they have reappraised their role in terms of links with industry, their links with the regions, in terms of access and mature entry. It has been beneficial to the public at large and to the economy. Part of the problem of the old university sector pre-1992 was that it was really cosy and some of the players were feather-bedded and protected from competition.

"Mary Warnock has always cared passionately about the education of the brightest and the best, the top 5 or 10 per cent of the age cohort, but has, perhaps, not been so interested in the educational fate of the next tier down, the 20 to 30 per cent ability range below.

"I think it is the next level down that we as a country have failed. What the expansion of higher education in general and the transformation of the polytechnics has done is to give that broader band of people below the very best and the brightest a chance to feel they are of value. I do not believe a very segregated education system serves the modern dynamic and fast-changing labour market at all well."

Douglas Hague

Sir Douglas is associate fellow at Templeton College, Oxford, former chairman of the Economic and Social Research Council 1983-87 and personal adviser to Margaret Thatcher 1967-79.

"I said that sooner or later some secretary of state would be daft enough to make the polytechnics into universities. Universities really do three things. They provide what I call academic training for the next generation of academics. They provide discipline training - knowlege for its own sake. And they provide "professional" training like engineering, IT, business, law or accounting. It seems to me that polytechnics ought to be providing this third thing.

"One of the problems is that there is an assumption that all university education is good both intellectually and in terms of making the nation more productive, and I just don't believe that.

"I believe that what we need are polytechnics for the 21st century which really can set very high intellectual standards [in the field of professional training]. Because there are so many more clever people out there in the professions, you can make much more use of them than we do.

"I am really asking for an open polytechnic, where you get much more interchange between the practioners, the students and also the academics to keep them up to date."

Additional reporting by Simon Midgley.

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