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Major reviews of higher education through history

Major reviews of higher education have shaped the history of the sector. David Kernohan takes us on a tour of 250 years of English HE policy.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Expert advice does have its uses. At those moments when a government is unsure of its own policy direction, and needs an excuse to park a complex and divisive issue for the immediate future, the announcement of a review gives all of the benefits of decisive action without the drawbacks of decision making. However, “major” reviews of higher education do tend to correlate with changes of government!

To commence a review takes the immediate political heat out of a matter of public concern – often removing partisan politics and offering the impression of independence and impartiality. In practice, everything from the remit to the timescale to the personnel are chosen carefully to reflect a particular cross-section of viewpoints, and exclude others.

Poor quality wine

You’ll excuse me if this sounds cynical. But for areas of policy of great complexity, risk and national importance an independent review is a far better deal than a ministerial whim or a half-line in an old manifesto that didn’t win popular support. When legislation is used to solve problems it usually creates more. One of the very first pieces of public legislation addressing universities concerned the very real problem of poor quality wine on and around the campus. The Universities (Wine Licenses) Act of 1743 looks pretty silly in retrospect – but the University of Cambridge still had licensing rights under this legislation until the turn of the millenium.

The first documented review of UK higher education, the Royal Commission of 1850, addressed widespread student complaints concerning an unrepresentative curriculum. There was too much maths in the Tripos – recommendations led almost immediately to examinations in Natural and Moral Sciences at Cambridge and Oxford. Autonomy? You can be sure it came up.

Curzon and Haldane

Next time the reform of Oxford (very much suffering from “lamentable” teaching quality during this period) was considered, the university’s chancellor himself – the charmingly of-his-time Lord Curzon – chaired a review in 1908. Despite the specificity of the remit, we see a surprisingly modern list of concerns – widening participation (“The admission of poor men”), teaching quality (“Organisation of teaching”) and, of course, funding (“Revenue, expenditure and financial administration”).

But around the same time the foundations of the modern system of government support were being laid based on another set of reviews. The 1904 Haldane Report led, eventually – in 1918, to the establishment of the Universities Grants Commission. Another (1918) report from Haldane (very much the Dearing of his day) led to the development of another funding body, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research – the two recognisable arms of modern government support for higher education were now in place. Both were initially chaired by the same person: one William McCormick, who was also chair of the Board of Education.

Percy, Barlow, Anderson, Robbins and Hale

During the next thirty years – except for another commission on Oxford and Cambridge in 1922 – higher education all but disappeared as a national policy concern. There were other issues to deal with (global economic collapse, war and rumours of war…). The post-war settlement saw Percy (1945) and Barlow (1948) examine the provision of scientific expertise in post-war Britain – and in amongst the provisions for emergency post-war campus rehousing you can see the beginnings of a national policy position on the contribution of HE to the wider economy.

But the next big shift came about as a result of three early 60s reports. Robbins (1963) you probably already heard of – but is perhaps less influential than high-profile advocates assert, Anderson (1960) was equally important as the underpinnings of sector finance and local authority contributions. Hale (1964) is now seldom spoken of, but represents the first real national attempt to address university teaching quality.

What these reports did was establish a system wherein fees were no longer charged to students, local authorities took on a funding role (in particular around maintenance) and the government began to take a more active role in deciding the volume and nature of HE provision. Polytechnics were established as a new form of provision, with awards validated by a national body (the CNAA). All this was a deliberate policy choice to expand the sector for the benefit of the economy and wider society. A 1972 white paper pondered the introduction of two year degrees (higher national diplomas), the 1978 Oakes report tidied up the administration of the polytechnics.

UGC/NAB, Jarrett, and Dearing

Was the post-Robbins settlement academia’s golden era? You’d think perhaps so judging by the absence of further reviews and legislation (though the popular Black Papers perhaps prefigured the free-speech attacks on universities) – the work of the early 60s was a generational settlement, and it was not until the early 80s that the need to reappraise took hold. Concerns about the level of state funding per student underpinned the University Grants Commission (UGC) and National Advisory Board (NAB) reports – commissioned in 1983 and reporting in 1984. During a period of austerity, the call on the government to maintain funding levels and increase student numbers was radical. The NAB report paraphrased Robbins’ famous recommendation that “higher education should be available to all who are qualified to pursue it”.

Jarrett, reporting in 1985, addressed specifically efficiencies and management in universities. It called for greater strategic direction on behalf of universities, and urged long-term funding stability to support this. Less famously, it called for a radical overhaul of the UGC role and structure, and urged the funding body to develop its own policy.

A rash of legislation then followed, introducing student maintenance loans and new duties on universities (including around free speech) whilst the unit of resource was allowed to fall sharply. 1992 saw the Further and Higher Education Act (foreshadowed by the white paper “A new framework”) end the binary divide between polytechnics and universities – a policy decision not linked to an independent review that is still controversial (with everyone from Andrew Adonis to Jo Johnson bringing it up) today.

But the national conversation rumbled on – Dearing (1997) was seen as a Haldane or Robbins for the late 90s in setting out a new generational settlement. His committee was backed by both parties, but the Blair administration used his substantial contribution to the debate primarily to introduce “top up fees” – responding to a continued sector concern around the unit of resource increasingly backed by indications that some universities would unilaterally impose their own tuition fees.

Browne and beyond?

With the tuition fees cat firmly out of the policy bag, politicians and the press seemed determined to talk about nothing else. Fees rose in 2004, the main commentariat take from a 2003 white paper that did a lot to implement Dearing’s many teaching quality related recommendations.

Cross-party consensus that HE policy shouldn’t feature in the 2010 election led to the establishment of the Browne Review. With Peter Mandelson as father and David Willetts as midwife, it was successful in taking tuition fees out of politics for everyone but archetypal stepchild Nick Clegg – who never really recovered from the cross-party consensus that established itself around what Willetts ended up recommending. Looking back Browne – like Dearing – saw a number of good ideas lost in the pursuit of a saleable “sticker price”.

One key aspect of Browne was that it was the first notable point of divergence between the four devolved nations. Scotland, of course, went its own way – abandoning tuition fees entirely. Wales coped as best it could before Hazelkorn and Diamond introduced a far superior maintenance offer. Northern Ireland has lower fees, but with such a small sector end up subsidising a lot of students studying elsewhere in the UK.

The replacement of maintenance grants in England (as recommended by Browne) with loans during the austerity years – announced in the 2015 Budget and starting from 2016 removed the sweetening from what started to feel like a very bitter pill for young people. A continued emphasis on the language of fees and loans to a system that is essentially a graduate tax gave the impression that graduates are being loaded with unsustainable levels of debt – commentators like Andrew McGettigan and Helen Carasso, and the teams at the IFS and London Economics, have documented the intricacies of government accounting practice that make this current system look attractive to the Treasury. Even the Treasury Committee is getting in on the act.

The long-delayed advent of the Higher Education and Research Act finally put some of the post-Browne policy machinery into legislation, and committed the government to both the systems that had been put into place and the underlying ideology. But an (arguably imaginary) Corbyn fees “youthquake” at the 2017 election brought the issue to a head.

So here we are again. An unstable minority government is looking to build support among students and young people, and hopefully find a domestic agenda for itself to move beyond the political chaos around Britain’s role in Europe. Remind you of anything?


(timeline as Excel file)

One response to “Major reviews of higher education through history

  1. Excellent summary David! However I would also include the Croham Committee report of 1986 into the UGC which introduced new Public Management ideas about efficiency and accountability into the debate about the future funding and affordability of the system, which in turn fed into the 1987 White Paper, the ERA (1988) and the 1992 F&HE Act.

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