universities

   During the postwar period, universities underwent a series of significant and revolutionary changes. Up until the Robbins Report (1963), chaired by Lionel (later Lord) Robbins, universities were relatively autonomous academic republics receiving a quinquennial recurrent grant from central government via the University Grants Committee (UGC). The latter, established in 1919, advised government on the distribution of funds to universities and acted, as Hugh Dalton noted, ‘as a buffer or shock absorber between the government and the universities’.
   That role, and indeed the system of university finance, management and autonomy, changed radically following the Robbins Report, which outlined details recommending a move from elite to mass higher education. This involved a projected tripling of student numbers by 1980 and a higher education system dominated by the universities. The demands placed on universities by growing numbers of eligible students, together with an overall projected increase in population size, prompted Robbins to recommend expanding the number of universities.
   Robbins introduced the principle, sacrosanct until recently, that all students capable of benefiting from higher education be permitted, if they so wished, to proceed to such education. A significant correlative to this was that education should be free at the point of delivery. The underlying justification for this was that as the benefit was not just to an individual but to society in general, the cost could reasonably be borne by the community.
   What followed the Robbins principle was the building of a number of new ‘plate glass’ universities, or as Harold Wilson somewhat disparagingly called them ‘Baedeker’ universities, in towns such as Canterbury and Colchester. The UGC had promptly followed Macmillan’s commission of Robbins in 1959 with a proposal to build seven new universities, and by 1974 the number of universities had doubled from its pre-Robbins total to forty-four. Ultimately, the final number was determined by bids that were able to meet the deadline set by the Treasury. Such bids conformed to the UGC’s guidelines: that a site of at least 200 acres be made available, and that there was evidence of local financial support, an ability to accommodate students and an attractive location for staff.
   Although the funding of higher education was a popular political move at the time for the Conservative Party, the speed with which the Robbins Report was adopted almost in toto, without even the briefest of discussions in the House of Lords, was exceptional. The proposals reflected the popularity of, and demand for, higher education at the time. The manner in which higher education was presented was also clearly an attempt by an ailing Conservative Party to appear populist rather than elitist. This was particularly evident after Macmillan stepped down, leaving Alec Douglas-Home as leader and Prime Minister. Ironically, however, while Robbins envisaged an expanding university sector that remained beyond the direct control of central government, the degree of planned university expansion came at the turning point of Britain’s economic fortunes. This left the incoming Labour government of Harold Wilson with no choice but to become more actively involved in the organization of the universities. For the first but not for the last time, government began to undercut the autonomy of universities. To his great credit, Wilson forced through the institution of the Open University, a primarily home, local and distance learning form of education that expanded the opportunities of higher education beyond anything previously imagined. On some accounts, this was his greatest political legacy. The Robbins Report had already outlined the costs of the university system from its 1937–8 figure of £26 million to its 1962–3 figure of £129 million. The plans for university expansion saw that figure climbing much higher, leaving Tony Crosland, the Labour Secretary of State for Education in 1964, with no other option but to take the first of a series of steps towards increasing government control and further undermining traditional university autonomy.
   The degree-awarding institutions, a right previously confined to universities holding Royal Charters, were expanded through the creation of the CNAA. This was a nationally and centrally accredited authority that was able to validate degrees in institutions outside the traditional and autonomous universities. In addition, there was a transfer of direct responsibility for the UGC from the Treasury to the Department of Education and Science (DES). Consequently, universities were made subject to inspection by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Permanent Secretary of the DES became the Accounting Officer for the universities. In addition, responsibility for academic salaries was transferred from the UGC to a National Incomes Commission. In an unprecedented use of state influence, the DES intervened directly to control university fees. In 1967 the raising of overseas students’ fees to a sum £200 in excess of home fees was recommended, and, while this was resisted strongly at the time, the raising of overseas student fees as a reasonable economic export was an argument used repeatedly by successive Conservative governments. A worsening economic crisis meant that by the early 1970s the DES continued to exert ever-greater control over universities. The UGC, a body that had protected universities from government interference, now became an arm of government interference. In 1974, the quinquennial funding system, which had stretched back to the creation of contemporary universities, was abolished in favour of an uneven and irregular annual allocation of funds. The effect of such action was to tie universities ever more closely to the economic policy of a particular government and to alter the role of the UGC such that it became an interventionist agent of government. Thus the autonomy of universities as organizations established under direct authority of the crown as ‘bodies politick’ (bodies embodying the highest ideal of faith and trust) was, at a stroke, ended by a convenient political fiat.
   The return of a Conservative government under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 laid the Robbins principle to rest. One of the government’s first actions was to remove the subsidy on overseas student fees altogether, requiring universities to charge the full amount; a decision which led to universities needing to ‘market’ themselves overseas. Furthermore, the home student fee payable to universities was halved. This was a blatant attempt to encourage universities to adhere to the student number targets defined by the UGC (a failure to comply led the UGC to fine institutions that exceeded these limits). In 1979–83, £100 million was withdrawn from the university system through a series of different stringency measures. In 1980, a reduction of £30 million (3.5 percent) of the recurrent grant for the following year was announced, prompting the UGC to issue a directive requiring the universities to plan for three scenarios: a projected zero increase in funding, a 2 percent increase, and a 5 percent reduction. The actual variation in grant allocation varied widely, and following the recommendations from its sub-committees, three universities (Aston, Bradford and Salford) received a reduced grant in the order of 30 percent.
   The differential squeeze placed upon institutions by the UGC marked the beginning of a process of selectivity between and within the universities, altering radically the shape and composition of British higher education. The chairman of the UGC, Sir Peter Swinnerton Dyer, announced in the publication of A Strategy for Higher Education into the 1990s (1984) that the Robbins principles were to be revised. The principle that higher education be available to all who could benefit from it, was, therefore, replaced by offering such education only to those qualified by ability and attainment. The report also mentioned that the amount of recurrent grant available from central government would be based on an institution’s effectiveness in research. This principle introduced the Research Assessment Exercise, a method of determining the quality of research in a university and a means of differentially allocating funds to universities. The first round of research assessment exercises in 1985–6 rated departments based on their research record. Gradings such as ‘starred’, ‘above average’, ‘average’, or ‘below average’ were translated into funds via a resource allocation model. Even those that were ‘successful’ were still required by the UGC to submit formal plans annually detailing how an institution was allocating resources earmarked for particular departments. The next round of research assessments in 1988–9 saw a number of changes. First, by the time of its publication in 1990 the UGC had been eliminated and replaced by the Universities Funding Council, a body composed of a considerably smaller number of people with far fewer academics present. Second, the publication of A Strategy for the Science Base by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils (ABRC) in 1987 paved the way for a stratified university system with institutions falling into three broad categories: first, those with excellent research capabilities across a wide range of disciplines; second, those engaged in research of high calibre within particular fields; and third, those without the provision of advanced research facilities.
   While Robbins recommended that all universities should have a significant research capability as well as a teaching function, the adoption of research as the definitive criteria of institutional excellence seemed to push the universities away from this principle and towards a tiered university system. This tendency was reinforced by the presentation of numerical listings, with each department listed from 1 (below average) to 5 (excellent) and in the latest round (1996) to 1–5*. The differential funding more or less removed research monies from grade 1 departments and quite markedly concentrated research funding in 5* departments.
   The effects of the research exercises have on the one hand meant that more research has been produced, some of which is of extremely high quality. On the other hand, it has also meant that the need for universities to discriminate in favour of those departments with a good research rating has resulted in a shift away from teaching towards research. The idea of a university is now less the body politic as stated in its statutes and charters, and more an institution with managers. The Education Reform Act of 1988 abolished academic tenure. That institution which had ensured freedom of speech replaced it with a system that permitted enforced redundancies, enforced early retirement and dismissals for academics who expressed dissatisfaction with the way in which their institutions were managed. While most institutions have retained their quality, their standing and the basic trust on which all sound institutions must be based, it is clear that some institutions have destroyed quality, standing, openness and trust while also severely curtailing academic freedom. In the course of the early 1990s, reclassifying polytechnics as ‘autonomous’ universities increased the number of universities. In consequence, there are now 100 or so universities. The UGC, and its successor the UFC, have been replaced by the Funding Councils, established by the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992.
   Student fees have been dramatically reduced and maintenance awards have been frozen for ten years, falling 36 percent against inflation. This has led to a serious reduction in university income. It is now quite usual for student income and public funding combined to be less than 50 percent of a university’s total income. The effect of this, together with the Research Assessment Exercise, has been to divide universities into primarily teaching or research institutions.
   In either case, the shortfall in student fees is so serious that universities have considered breaching the Robbins principle and charging students ‘topup’ fees. In the light of this, a bipartisan committee under Ron Dearing was established to re-examine the fee structure of universities, their function, their wider purpose and their place in the community. The Dearing report ended the Robbins’ principle of free university education at the point of delivery and recommended that students be required to pay for a substantial part of their fees. The government’s response has been to accept this and to simultaneously eliminate the maintenance grant replacing the cumulative total (approx. £10,000) with a twenty-year payback scheme that will come into effect once earnings have passed a certain level. In practice, the costs of such payback are likely to be relatively small, but the principle of higher education free at the point of delivery has formally been breached. It is also regrettable that there are no guarantees that the money so recouped has been ‘ring-fenced’; that is to say there is no guarantee that it will be fed directly back into higher education. In consequence, students could find themselves paying more towards a better service that cannot be provided because the money they pay does not find its way back into education.
   It will be some years before the effect of all these proposed changes are known, whatever the detailed outcome it will result in the biggest shake-up in universities since the Robbins report. It will regard the student as a consumer with a consequent duty to pay for the advantage obtained from higher education, and will regard the universities as providers with clear duties and standards. In many cases this will lead to vast improvements. How widespread those improvements turn out to be, only time will tell.
   Further reading
    Clarke, P.B. (1986) ‘Exporting Education: Risks and Benefits’, The Australian, 22 January. Higher Education in the Learning Society: Report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (The Dearing Report) (1997), London: HMSO.
    Shattock, M. (1994) The UGC and the Management of British Universities, London: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
   PAUL BARRY CLARKE
   LAWRENCE QUILL

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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