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The end of the binary divide: reflections on 25 years of the 1992 Act

The 'binary divide' between universities and polytechnics proved to be unsustainable, but the challenges it created are still with us today. Mike Ratcliffe evaluates the 1992 Act's background and legacy.
This article is more than 5 years old

Mike Ratcliffe is a higher education historian and career academic administrator

Amid much scoffing, and apparently to the unending distaste of some commentators, the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 brought to an end the binary policy for higher education in the UK (as well as marking the beginning of the end of a UK-wide system of higher education).

The thing that we call ‘higher education’ has always gone on outside the things we call ‘universities’. All governments have had policies and practices that apply differently to types of higher education and those things we now know as providers. There may never be a ‘level playing field’ – but there was a period when the British Government explicitly decided to have two sectors of higher education and to treat them differently: the era of the ‘binary divide’.

‘Academic drift’

Antony Crosland, who announced the binary policy in 1965, later said he regretted being bounced into making the ‘Woolwich speech‘, that he was led by his officials and advisers to make it. The announcement was less a radical departure from existing higher education policy than an attempt by government to hold-back ‘academic drift’, whereby institutions set up for one purpose (say offering locally orientated vocational courses) drifted to emulate other more prestigious institutions. It was hoped that creating a sector of publicly controlled higher education institutions would hold this at bay, in particular designating a select number of polytechnics that would stem the tide of promotions from locally-focused colleges to become autonomous universities.

The Robbins Report had recommended that the best of the colleges, the Colleges of Advanced Technology, should become ‘Technological Universities’ and that group were already negotiating their charters at the time. The government would freeze any more promotions and polytechnics would become the apex of a public sector of higher education which maintained an official diversity of institutional types. This is part of what Michael Shattock has described as Weaverism, a period of higher education policy continuity under civil servant Toby Weaver.

A good heart

Before 1988 the public sector was loosely defined. Higher education happened in hundreds of regional and local colleges, colleges of education, and art schools. An initial consolidation at the point of designation of the polytechnics (not all colleges which applied were given the status) and subsequently resulted in complex mergers across local authority provision. The distributed city centre sites of some universities bear witness to their separate lives as different colleges. The polytechnics embraced their new status, confident about a vocational mission just as the universities grappled with the question of ‘relevance’. The binary divide survived changes in government, and the polytechnic directors were characterised by civil servants as being in ‘good heart’ even in the face of growing student numbers contrasted with university vice-chancellors.

The Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) was central to the development of the public sector. It has been well evaluated in the past, but today’s discussions over the treatment of ‘challenger providers’ shows how much it was missed. Like many aspects of the new ‘public sector,, ’ it took a while to reach a steady state, but its mixture of peer review alongside common academic principles managed to secure good facilities for students and maintain standards. Eventually, the polytechnics and colleges got so good at the game, it became possible to devolve authority to them.

The weakness for the public sector was that little else was devolved to them as they remained firmly creatures of local government. The governors of a polytechnic had less delegated authority than a primary school does today. Staff were employees of the local authority which determined their pay, conditions, and pensions – the latter the most obvious vestigial of this period.

The end, or just the beginning?

The mid-1980s saw central government ranged against local government, especially the ‘looney left’. Polytechnics were widening their focus, and students were applying from further afield. The issues of funding constraints, bureaucracy, and political interference vexed the polytechnic directors which lobbied central government. This struck the right chord at the right time. By 1986 Margaret Thatcher was ready to grant independence to business-like polytechnic directors willing to meet the government’s policy objectiv and supported them in having more managerial structures rather than all-powerful academic boards.

For former polytechnic leaders, such as Sir Clive Booth, it was incorporation that was the biggest step forward for the sector, freeing it from the local authorities. The 1988 Education Reform Act changed both sectors, abolishing tenure in the universities and replacing the venerable University Grants Committee with a funding council. The polytechnics and selected colleges were incorporated and had their own funding council. The Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council facilitated growth, albeit at a reduced unit of resource, but the polytechnics grasped at the opportunity. The universities grumbled with the new Universities Funding Council and refused similar incentives to grow.

Although it might have been possible for this mature phase of the binary line to continue, the contradictions inherent in it were pulling it apart. The polytechnics had begun their own academic drift, even though they were constrained in a separate sector. They were being funded nationally for recruiting students to a variety of programmes and offered undergraduate, masters and research degrees. On the other side, many universities were adopting traits of the public sector, returning to more vocational degrees and doing more applied research. Clive Booth concluded a lecture on Oxford Brookes’ transition from polytechnic to university by quoting Simon Jenkins:

It is curious that most observers have seen the demise of the polytechnics as a victory for the universities … in reality it was not the university but the polytechnic that triumphed: a work-oriented, commercial institution, run as a public corporation under government regulations rather than as a collegium of scholars. The polytechnic sector may have lost the war, but it won the argument.


The ‘former polytechnic’ tag is hard to shake. For some this is still a painful struggle: even though we now have whole cohorts of graduates which were born after 1992, even though the ‘post-1992’ universities have now all been universities for longer than they were polytechnics. The 1990s systems of teaching and research assessment exercises demonstrated what Sir David Watson called the ‘controlled reputational range’ of the new sector, with satisfactory outcomes, albeit with a selective focus in research (famously, the focused Oxford Brookes history department gained a 5* over Oxford’s 5 in the 2001 RAE). ‘Prestige’ is less easy to establish, however good the reputation of a university can be, and it’s clear that some markers will take longer to firmly establish.

For some, the conversion of the polytechnics remains a problem, as if the forced diversity of the binary line was sustainable. Maybe some part of the English character is simply in the past, with our blue passports, and what Howard Newby noted was part of our genius:

[T]he English—and I do mean the English—do have a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy and I am not sure what we can do about that, to be quite honest. It is very regrettable that we cannot celebrate diversity rather than constantly turning it into hierarchy.

Hopefully, we will be able to celebrate 25 years since the end of the binary divide, as we also now come to an end of the HEFCE era, finding new ways to celebrate our diversity.

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