Higher education in general election manifestos – the 1940s and 50s

Debbie McVitty finds the seeds of an emerging consensus around the value of higher education expansion in party manifestos of the post-war years

In 1943, while the Second World War continued to rage, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave an ambitious speech that anticipated the eventual end of war and the government’s agenda for rebuilding Britain.

He spoke about working towards full employment, with compulsory national insurance that would serve “all purposes from cradle to the grave,” re-planning and rebuilding towns and cities, expansion and improvement of agriculture, the establishing of a National Health Service, and a need for expansion of education at all levels:

Human beings are endowed with infinitely varying qualities and dispositions, and each one is different from the others. We cannot make them all the same. It would be a pretty dull world if we did. It is in our power, however, to secure equal opportunities for all. The facilities for advanced education must be evened out and multiplied. No one who can take advantage of a higher education should be denied this chance. You cannot conduct a modern community except with an adequate supply of persons upon whose education, whether humane, technical, or scientific, much time and money have been spent.

These words capture the tone of much of education policy in the post-war period – the expansion of education opportunity at every level according to the principle of equal opportunities (however unevenly achieved in practice), and the clear alignment of the national interest with fostering an educated citizenry.

While there are dividing lines between the parties – particularly in the provision of secondary education (which has a direct impact on the contemporary view of who should be considered to be qualified for a university education) – there is a broad consensus at this time that higher education should grow and, increasingly, that funds should be made available to students from the state to meet the costs of attendance.

1945 – an agenda for national renewal

The Labour government that swept to power under Clement Atlee following the 1945 election is given credit in the popular imagination for the creation of the architecture of the modern welfare state, such as the NHS. But ministers from each of the three main parties – Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals – had held roles in the wartime national government, and all parties agreed on the scale of the task facing the country in demobilising and rebuilding. The question put to the electorate in 1945 in some ways was less about specific policy prescriptions and more about which party could capture the confidence of the electorate to lead on reconstruction efforts and serve the national interest.

The Conservative manifesto for the 1945 general election places significant emphasis on Churchill’s wartime premiership and promises to “seek the good of the whole nation, not that of one section or faction.” The Labour 1945 manifesto, by contrast, while highlighting the leadership of Labour ministers such as Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison in government during the war, professes that “this war will have been won by its people, not by any one man or set of men…The Labour Party offers the nation a plan which will win the Peace for the People.” In characteristically muted rhetoric, the Liberal 1945 manifesto complains about the timing of the election but welcomes the “opportunity of submitting our programme to the Nation.”

The almost total absence of any discussion of universities or higher education in the 1945 manifestos reminds us that then, as now, higher education often registers in political parties’ consciousness in inverse proportion to the perceived scale of the challenges facing the country as a whole. That is not to say that universities had no political clout – 1945 was the last election in which the 12 university constituencies returned Members of Parliament – the constituencies were abolished for the 1950 election. But in 1945, higher education clearly was not a “doorstep issue” – particularly since the participation rate at the time was lower than five per cent of the population and there were fewer than 20 universities in the whole of the United Kingdom.

Yet education more widely formed a clear part of the programme for national renewal across all the main parties. In 1944 Parliament had passed the Education Act (the Butler Act) which gave local education authorities responsibilities to ensure universal provision for primary and secondary education in their locality, up to the age of 15, and to secure adequate provision for post-compulsory further education. A similar Act was passed for Scotland in 1945. All the main parties in their 1945 manifestos welcome the passage of the Act and make commitments to realising its provisions in practice.

The 1950s – tensions abroad and “class struggle” at home

Education expansion was not without its challenges – visible in party manifestos throughout the 1950s as constant fretting about class sizes and the numbers of teachers being trained. But it also had longer term impacts – as more young people accessed secondary and further education, the demand for higher education increased. Five new universities were established in England between 1948-1960 and the nineteen fifties saw steady growth in progression at higher education, albeit from a very low base – growing demand for access to university that paved the way for the Anderson Committee report on student grants in 1960 and the Robbins Committee report on the state of higher education in 1963.

The fifties saw four general elections – the 1950 election, in which Atlee’s Labour squeaked to a very narrow majority of only five seats: another election in 1951, held (incredibly) at the behest of the King who had feared political instability during his planned tour of the Commonwealth, which saw a narrow Conservative victory with a majority of 26 and the return of Churchill as Prime Minister; the 1955 election, in which the Conservatives under Anthony Eden extended their majority to a more comfortable 60 seats; and the 1959 election, in which the Conservatives under Harold Macmillan won an even larger majority of 100.

Tonally, the manifestos from this period capture both an increasingly alarming international landscape, with the rise of the Soviet Union, tensions in East Asia and war in Korea, developments in nuclear technology, and the invention of the powerful hydrogen bomb – and much stronger political divisions between the parties against a backdrop of domestic economic hardship and inflation.

In the Conservative 1950 manifesto, the Conservatives (now with much less emphasis on Churchill the individual) claim that the “Socialist Government” has failed to bring Britain “prosperity and security” with the public facing both high taxes and high cost of living. The Labour 1950 manifesto, by contrast, argues that “by and large the first majority Labour Government has served the country well” and call the Conservatives “the party of outdated ideas, of unemployment, of privilege.” The Liberal 1950 manifesto accuses the other two parties of being “locked…in what is really a class struggle” and offers the Liberals as the party “more likely to unite the nation.”

Labour frames its education policy as a “children first” agenda – perhaps with the aim of appealing to the parents of the many babies that were born in the post-war years – emphasising the health and educational opportunities newly available, while undertaking to train more teachers and expand education still further. As part of this broad message of opportunity, the manifesto says that the “door to higher education is being opened ever wider by the provision of scholarships and grants to Universities.”

The Conservative manifesto likewise focuses on continued implementation of the Butler Act and reduction of class sizes, adding that the party attaches a “special importance to retaining the traditions and, wherever possible, the corporate life of the grammar schools,” and to offering parents a choice of types of school. Perhaps as a corollary, the Conservative manifesto also argues for an increase in the number and status of technical schools and colleges. The Liberals also fret about class sizes and teacher welfare, and pledge to establish “separate schools for different branches of education.”

Not one of the (universally brief) manifestos for the 1951 election says anything about education, never mind universities, aside from a generalised commitment to “equal opportunities in education” from Labour – the clear backdrop is widespread anxiety about national defence, geopolitical tensions and the possibility of further global conflict, and domestic economic challenges.

University access cuts through as a political agenda

By the second half of the 1950s, however, the question of access to university is beginning to register in the parties’ manifestos and the debate over comprehensive secondary education has formed a clear political dividing line. The 1955 Conservative manifesto continues to defend the grammar school/secondary modern split, and to promise more technical colleges, but also gestures towards university access in professing to “favour greater uniformity in the scales of County awards to University students. ”The increasing political salience of universities and perhaps the political power of universities as having a collective influence is signalled in a pledge to “continue to guarantee the present freedom of the Universities from Government interference.”

Labour’s 1955 general election manifesto pledges “radical reform” of the education system, including abolition of the 11-plus, encouragement of comprehensive secondary schooling, and a national scale of maintenance allowances and state scholarships “to prevent children being removed from school or denied a University education for lack of means.”

By 1959, however, we see the first post-war political commitment to university expansion in the 1959 Conservative manifesto which pledges “a massive enlargement of educational opportunity at every level” including a one-third increase in the numbers attending university, and a reference to the Anderson committee which the Conservative government had commissioned to review student finance, and which reported after the election, in 1960.

In the Labour 1959 manifesto the party pledges to “ensure that any student accepted by a university will receive a really adequate State scholarship” and the expansion of apprenticeships and training to meet the needs of the much greater numbers of teenagers leaving secondary education.

The Liberals were silent on the question of education in the 1955 Liberal manifesto – perhaps mindful of the risks of taking a side on the question of comprehensive versus mixed secondary education – but by the 1959 election the Liberals were prepared to endorse the principle of mixed secondary education, and offer investment in education at every level, including a “big extension of University education” and the end to the means test for student finance. It’s worth noting here the freedom with which Labour and the Liberals commit to state financing of students, whereas the sitting Conservative government feels less able to do so – deferring the issue to an independent committee reporting post-election, in an historical precursor of the Labour government’s Browne review which reported soon after the 2010 General Election.

Conservatives and science and technology in the 1950s

At the 1955 and 1959 elections, in a clear dividing line between the parties, the Conservative manifestos make much of building Britain’s scientific and technological capability – set firmly against the backdrop of national security. Thus in the 1955 manifesto:

Our country’s prosperity is bound up with her scientific knowledge and the extent to which her industrialists and farmers make use of it. We therefore place a strong emphasis in our educational policy upon the expansion of scientific and technological training. We shall continue to promote and encourage research both in private industry and State establishments.

And the Conservatives’ 1959 manifesto promised to create a new Minister for Science who would be “given the task of promoting scientific and technological development.” Quintin Hogg, Baron Hailsham was duly appointed Minister of Science following the Conservative election victory – though without a Cabinet position.

Overall, while higher education clearly was not a key political issue for any party in this immediate post-war period, we can see some of the seeds being sown of themes that loom larger in subsequent decades: debates over secondary schooling and by implication the pipeline to HE; the alignment of the UK’s science and technology capability with its national security and economic interests; and the sense that enabling access to higher education is almost an automatic corollary of expansion of educational opportunity elsewhere and a hallmark of a modern, democratic society. As living standards began to rise towards the end of the 1950s, and the post-war baby boomers hit their teens, the availability of higher education opportunities would continue to increase in political salience.

One response to “Higher education in general election manifestos – the 1940s and 50s

  1. We can see the roots of the post-war consensus on the need to expand higher education in the actions of the war-time coalition government. As it agreed to expand compulsory education provision, it also planned for the teachers that would be needed in the McNair report (1944), setting up a network of emergency teacher training colleges in repurposed buildings across the country.
    The UGC knew that there would be a demand for university places – there had been a significant rise after WW1 – so it also started planning, writing to universities and university colleges in 1943 to ask for plans to expand. Some were still tiny (especially viewed by today’s sizes) so it didn’t need new universities, just to expand the ones they had. Only the University College of North Staffordshire was created in the immediate post-war period in an attempt to do something different.
    The Percy report (1945) also proposed new measures on technical education, with a framework of colleges, some of which would offer education of a ‘comparable standard’ (ie level) to universities.

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