David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Although we cleave to the works of fine scholars like Mike Ratcliffe and former ministers like David Willetts, the actual history of higher education in England more closely resembles that which can be remembered four drinks deep at the Wonkhe Christmas party business meeting.

For the first time ever we are able to bring you that history in full, with a respectful nod to Sellar (MA (Oxon) aegrotat) and Yeatman (Failed MA etc (Oxon)).

In 1096 the monied son of a prominent local merchant gave some bloke in the Turf Tavern who’d said he’d been to Bologna a few quid to teach him Latin.

Looking back, it’s not clear he got value for money – the Office for Students is currently investigating. When LEO data was invented in the early 12th century by King Henry I, it transpired that 100 per cent of his cohort (p=1) had perished during the invasion of Normandy. Graduate Outcomes returns (preserved as the Bayeux tapestry) showed our graduate had never held a “highly skilled” role, spending most of his adult life hitting Normans with bits of metal on sticks.

More universities means worse

But our first graduate did something very valuable – his fees became the foundation of an English university system. For about the next 900 years large external funding streams were primarily capital rather than recurrent funding – students and academics trapped and ate rats as monied vice chancellors knocked up another fancy modern college building. And students still had to pay fees and put up with poor quality accommodation in town. In 1231 a bunch of Oxford rejects got so upset with the locals that they built another university on a swamp in the fens – it got TEF (townspeople enraging framework) Gold.

Overseas students became another key source of income – stories of Emo of Friesland’s Freshers week spent listening to retro minor-key lute music from the 1180s, drinking snakebite, and writing bad sonnets passed into legend. Eventually unions of students began no-platforming the Catholic Church – the resulting divestment hitting university finances hard and seeing UK universities plummet down international league tables.

The “woke” student body continued to annoy townspeople immensely with their constant criticisms of the government. Meanwhile, senior leaders used the controversy to attract royal funding and patronage. The hashtag #RoyalOxbridge trended in the broadsides and printed ballads of the time – UCU Left were outraged, and still are to this day. The decision was made to limit the problem by having only two universities – some believe this still to be the situation.

Level playing fields

As we have seen, as soon as a university gets established it immediately begins to get worse. Sustained government dissatisfaction with the sector saw a wave of dubious alternative providers – like Durham, King’s College London, and Manchester – spring up to take advantage of a new appetite for skills provision before getting worse. Local businesses put in funds to capitalise on new government subsidies – academic work now formed the means for politicians to refer to “The Science” as policy was developed. Demand for vocational courses grew – with various fashionable new institutional forms emerging before being abandoned as they turned out to also be universities and proceeding to get worse.

Eventually – and inevitably – the government ended up picking up nearly the whole cost of all the universities via a marvellous contraption called the machinery of government. This was all fine until the idea that people that weren’t already loaded might benefit from three years of advanced study took hold. Now it was popular and in demand, university was far too expensive, and some felt that things were far better when it was just posh people that got to go. As the campus became more familiar, novelists realised that people at universities sometimes had sex – and an important literary genre was born.

Despite the arguments of posh people a memorable date (1963) happened when it was decided by a committee of robins that universities and students were – on balance – a Good Thing (and could possibly even get better) and thus government should pay for absolutely everything. This decision remains controversial and in some circles deeply unpopular, but as it had already been made there seemed little point in reviewing it. A great period of building universities out of concrete in fields began, much to the detriment of the robins.

Another memorable date

In the 70s and 80s Margaret Thatcher made a decisive intervention to make universities worse again by giving them more money. When this didn’t work, she started giving them less money instead – this annoyed academics immensely but did nothing to dissuade young people from the position that going to university and not having a job was better than merely not having a job. But the most important – and memorable – date in English higher education history (1992) happened when an unmemorable government decided to make some more things that were a bit like universities into universities. The repercussions persist to this day.

The Russell Group was founded shortly afterwards to argue the case that providers founded 900 years after Oxford were much better than these new providers founded 950 years after Oxford. Students then began paying fees again – a key recommendation of the Dearing Report was that being a student should be dearer. Inspired by this shift away from the government paying for universities numerous politicians tried to set up a price sensitive university fee market – an idea so attractive it was attempted three times with the same result on each occasion.

Rab and the great plague

All this led to the dawn of Rab and his invisible hand, who in his great wisdom decided that even though students (who were actually graduates) were paying for universities it was the government who was paying all along, and it was still paying more each year. Numerous attempts were made to investigate this, before Rab turned out to be a “fiscal allusion” and thus too complicated for anyone to understand. Rab (and his invisible hand) thus stopped being memorable – a statement by the Prime Minister of the day consisted mostly of coughing but remained a Reportable Event.

Nearly a thousand years after the first student fee was paid a great plague came upon the land, and students were forced to retreat from their universities and continue to study remotely. There had been plagues before – and universities had been forced to close before – but this was different. The government of the day bravely stepped in to ensure that students would be able to hear opinions that the government liked but they did not, made certain that the maximum possible experience of the plague was provided, and then decided to talk about giving universities less money again. Students responded by cancelling history.

But despite history being cancelled it continues to happen to this day, with the next development due to be a plan to make students happier by having less of them and returning to the pattern of making universities better and/or worse by giving them less money.

Self assessment

(To ensure higher learning occurs candidates must not attempt to answer these questions online)

  1. If Dearing was a Major review and Browne was a Minor review, was Augar an Augmented review? Speculate wildly, using figured bass notation.
  2. Sketch, using protractors, the machinery of government. Add labels as required.
  3. How many New JNCHES are there in an FTE?
  4. Is the state of the Office for Students absolute or benchmarked?

2 responses to “Post-92 and all that – a sector history for the rest of us

  1. I blame the Normans and their elitist cronies and descendants. They did not, as the Romans did not, penetrate Scotland, where universities are not only a Good Thing but a Better Thing. Those in England have had Norman Tebbitt, Norman Lamont etc. We need a Hereward the Woke.

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