Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

I recently referred to this notable time for higher education – and the major traumas of nearly four decades ago – in a Wonkhe piece on the pandemic.

When I started working in higher education in the late 80s, institutions were still feeling the aftershocks of the 1981 cuts to the sector.

Back in 1981 the government had imposed a 15% cut on HE which was applied differentially across universities by its funding body, the Universities Grants Committee (UGC), with some having single figure reductions and others facing much greater cuts. Salford University for example had a 44% reduction to its grant, Aston 31% and Stirling 27%.

The 1980s was a period of massive challenge for universities and there are some strong parallels with the current position the sector faces but also differences:

  • It’s much more visible this time – the nature of the worldwide crisis is such and the impact on every part of our national economy is such that it is (almost) impossible to deny that there is a huge storm approaching. Back in the 80s, universities simply did not expect that government would impose cuts as big as they did – most were modelling scenarios ranging from modest to zero growth and were completely surprised by the savings demanded.
  • Whilst it’s not the UGC making the decisions about allocation of the cuts based on rather opaque criteria, the pitch to government for a support package by Universities UK on behalf of English institutions was very much an attempt to provide support for all and has ended up apparently delivering little for most, so far.
  • The expected huge loss of international student fee income (together with research, student accommodation and commercial income shortfalls) means the scale is much, much bigger overall than in the 1980s, the pain is focused most on universities already in financial difficulties and those with the highest proportions of international student fee income.
  • It is happening in one big hit rather than being spread over several years, although the effects will be long-lasting.
  • However, the massive size of the predicted income gap means that the sector does need help in the short term to manage the initial blow and transition to a different future. It has yet to persuade the government fully that it should receive much in the way of specific assistance but efforts are continuing.

All stood still

John Sizer, in A Critical Examination of the Events Leading up to the UGC’s Grant Letters Dated 1st July 1981 (Higher Education, Vol. 18, No. 6 (1989), pp. 639-679) offers a detailed analysis of how the UGC and universities were ill prepared for the cuts and suggests that the sector and Shirley Williams (Secretary of State for Education and Science prior to the May 1979 General Election)

clung to the concept of university autonomy, which largely remained intact in 1979, when excessive dependence on public funds, at a time when public expenditure as a whole was under increasing pressure, had made the prospect of increased dirigisme a distinct possibility. …they were largely responding to reductions in real resources and short term changes in the government’s counter inflation policy. In doing so they had not faced up to hard choices in the allocation and redeployment of resources between universities and within universities, partially because throughout the 1970’s Senates exerted a dominant influence at the expense of that of Councils.

University autonomy is critical to ensure academic freedom which enables the most effective prosecution of the best research and the most innovative teaching and learning. However, all too often, the concept is deployed as if it were an unarguable trump card, an unquestionably powerful defence against all comers and an unqualified good. It isn’t and it has to be justified and argued for in order to sustain it. As we are finding now, there are those in government for whom ‘something for something’ in terms of a possible support package for higher education does not mean maintaining university autonomy is paramount.

Analysing the UGC’s changing relationships with government and the universities over the period to 1983 Shattock and Berdahl (The British University Grants Committee 1919-83: Changing Relationships With Government And The Universities, Higher Education 13 (1984) 471-499) conclude with the rather fierce criticism:

By 1979 the U.G.C. system was in serious disrepair. Its planning mechanisms were in tatters, with the Chairman being able to do little more than react to the twists and turns of the Government’s counter inflation policy. It had sought with some success to keep the universities informed of developments but there could be little pretence that it remained a body which carried much weight with the D.E.S. or in Whitehall. (p. 490)

It was not only the UGC though and Sizer includes case studies of nine universities which are largely, but not wholly, consistent with the view that by May 1979 the UGC and the universities were responding to short term resource reductions and not really addressing longer term planning.

Letters to universities from the UGC in August and October 79 gave indications of the likely direction of travel – no increase in funding at best and the introduction of international fees. Universities were asked to consider three scenarios – modest increase, flat funding and some decrease in funds but the advice was unclear and in any case UGC misread what was coming as did universities: the worst case scenario they were asked to plan for was a 5% cut and this was not taken terribly seriously.

The introduction of fees for international postgraduates (who made up over a third of all postgrads) and the withdrawal of subsidies for them was expected to have a similar impact as the current crisis in international student recruitment is likely to have on universities today.

Under pressure

In October 1980 Sizer reports that Dr Edward Parkes, UGC Chair, addressed the CVCP and included the warning:

“that the pressures to cut the education vote in favour of other forms of government spending are very high, and we may not in the end be entirely unscathed.”
He went on to consider student numbers. He thought it unlikely that the government would keep finance and numbers separated for long, and that it seemed probable that the grant allocation for 1981-92 would say something about student targets.

The next section of the address left the audience in no doubt that there was
going to be in future “… a somewhat greater degree of direct intervention by the U.G.C. in the affairs of individual universities” than had been customary or necessary in the past.

There was more news too including the need for more collaboration, between universities and at a time of declining resources “a philosophy of laissez-faire with regard to the development of all but the most expensive subjects could no longer be sustained.”

Parkes also stressed from a political perspective, “universities not only had to adapt themselves to new needs and new tasks, which in fact they had always done, but they must be seen to be doing so.”

In December 1980, in UGC circular 24/80, universities were told that worse was on the way than even the 5% previously indicated and asked universities to plan accordingly; by the time of the March 1981 White Paper forthcoming reductions in spend were estimated by CVCP to be up to 15%. But it does actually seem that some still did not heed the warnings and, according to Sizer, by the time of the 1 July 1981 grant letter:

Whilst the U.G.C. can be criticised for failing to give a clear indication of the range of possible cuts, and for creating a false sense of security during the dialogue meetings and in the 1980-81 grant letter, the primary responsibility must fall upon the management of universities. Management implies making and implementing decisions under conditions of risk and uncertainty. Failing to prepare contingency plans cannot be justified simply on the grounds of uncertainty about the likely content of the U.G.C.’s 1st July grant letters.

Under your thumb

A report of a Symposium considering the effects of the cuts several years later indicates some of the issues which were still at play. Alan Waton (The Cuts in British Higher Education: A Symposium, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1984), pp. 167-181) is highly critical of the work of the UGC and the ways in which they arrived at their conclusions and failed to offer “any coherent account of the rationale behind, nor the manner in which they came to, their decisions”.

Those looking for reassurances about the light at the end of the tunnel may find some crumbs of comfort in his observations about the fall out:

Despite numerous crises (and numerous scares) all universities have survived. Students may find it harder to get places. (John Acker, Deputy General Secretary of the AUT, has described 1983 as the worst for 25 years in terms of qualified applicants being turned away.) They will find it even harder next year. Some courses have closed. Staff, even in areas where student numbers have been reduced or applications discontinued, are teaching more hours and facing larger classes. But the cataclysmic events forecast by many have not happened. The situation as a whole seems remarkably normal, almost as if 1981 had not happened.

Waton notes that the AUT sought mainly to protect jobs and that eventually there were almost no compulsory redundancies. However, he adds, unhappily, that despite the earlier references to the return of normality, tough times are still ahead:

from all sides comes evidence that no lessons have been learnt since 1981. Universities expect to be cut again, expect tenure to be ‘modified’ (i.e. abolished) for new entrants, expect greater selectivity in research funding. Such expectations are the foundation of reactions-‘Be realistic’ is the cry heard again and again.

Fade to grey

In the Autumn of 1981 Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor, and future Chair of the UGC, writing in the London Review of Books (Vol. 3 No. 21 · 19 November 1981) made a number of points which, almost 40 years on, have some surprising resonance with our current position. He covers a range of topics including the shift away from research towards teaching (and the subsidy of the former) and the consequences of financial constraint:

This has been the easiest path to follow: pressure both from students and from unions is for more teaching and more jobs. It takes some time for the price of such a policy to become evident. But the price, in the gradual collapse of scientific research in some universities, is becoming evident just at the time when the policy has become far harder to reverse.

The issues of ending fee subsidies for international students and charging full costs, the Robbins principle and post-16 education are all covered as is the consequences for research activity of the dismissal of experienced tenured staff. But the really interesting comments are about the response of some in the sector to the huge financial challenges faced and the view that the best thing would be to wait for a change of government and the restoration of finances rather than planning to respond to the new realities:

Not everyone would share these views. Indeed, many leading figures in British universities maintain that at present all forecasts are damaging: for any realistic forecast must be gloomy, and gloomy forecasts are apt to be self-fulfilling. They believe that the way to minimise damage to the university system is to carry on all our activities as usual, and to react to external pressures as little and as late as possible: that policy will avoid unnecessary sacrifices, and may lead to the cuts imposed on the system being smaller than they would otherwise have been.
I believe that this hope is vain and that any policy based on it is foolish; and that those universities which follow it will do themselves unnecessary damage. Universities cannot hope to pass through the next few years unchanged, and we shall all have to learn to live with less resources than we have become accustomed to.

Whilst it is easy to criticise the UGC for inadequacies in its actions in advising and alerting the sector to the changes coming its way at that time, it does rather seem that many universities were slow to respond other than with short term actions to address the immediate cuts rather than planning for the longer term changes needed to plot a course through what was going to be a radically different environment. This applies to institutions individually and collectively.

Further, on the response to the changes, Swinnerton-Dyer comments on the impact of the place of universities in the wider education sphere and in society more generally:

More generally, we must recognise that universities will be less dominant in British education than they have been accustomed to be. Universities do a good job for those students who come to them: the problem is that a system which has been built around them does not provide what the less good students need. We would be wise to accept that there must be changes in the national system of education, and that universities will have to change too if they are to serve their students in the new system as well as they have served them in the old. What we face is not the emasculation of Higher Education in this country, unless by our own folly and intransigence we make it so. But we do face great changes, and it is natural for those who have grown accustomed to things as they are to be apprehensive of what may come. For all we know, the caterpillar may view with equal apprehension his inescapable transformation into a butterfly.

Strong words indeed. Writing in response to the article one commentator suggested that:

With hindsight, we can now see that the universities should have embarked there and then on a public relations and education campaign, directed not least at the DES, to convince the public that high-cost, high-quality undergraduate education was a worthwhile investment for a democratic society.

Hard to argue with that.

You better you bet

What does all this tell us about the position universities are in today? We are a long way from 1981 but we do need to learn the lessons about preparing for the worst case scenarios, the need for close collaboration across the sector and ensuring we are able to respond nimbly to rapidly changing circumstances. Above all though universities need to determine that we are not avoiding necessary difficult decisions by waiting to be rescued and that we are aiming to map out and determine, as best we can, our own destiny.

Engagement of all parts of the university is critical but calling, as some have done, for the return to the dominance of academic Senates, as was the case 40 years ago, in determining the future course of institutions is not going to deliver what is required, not least because of the need to involve all university staff and students in working together to deliver a successful future.

We also need to continue to remind everyone through our actions of the critical role that universities play in society, not just research and education contributions but also our essential place in economic recovery. And at this particular time we need to keep stressing that universities are doing all they can to contribute to the national effort against the Covid-19 outbreak and we continue to lead the vital medical research into a vaccine and providing much-needed equipment, facilities and extra staff to frontline NHS services. Moreover, shouting about the need for autonomy, without explaining why it is so important in enabling universities to deliver all of this and more, is not enough.

Of course where we are now is very different from where we were in 1981 (and not just musically) but there are some strong parallels and some important lessons to be learned not least the need for clear-headed longer term planning, real collaboration between institutions and a joined up response to government and reinforcing the central role of universities to the social, economic and broader prosperity of our country. We’ve got a long way to go.

2 responses to “Stand and deliver: It’s 1981 all over again

  1. The reference to music is interesting here as that industry too has gone through massive changes. Interestingly too musicians have been active in their repose to Covid-19. Music ‘consumption’ also is now very different. Are there further parallels to be drawn?

  2. This article talks about “UK Higher Education” and the sector financed by the University Grants Committee as if they were one and the same.

    In fact a substantial part of HE in 1981, certainly in terms of student numbers and numbers of institutions, was outside the UGC funding remit – the Local Authority sector in England and Wales, the publicly funded church institutions (mainly teacher training), the Central Institutions in Scotland etc. They had their own financial challenges with the monetarist fiscal policy of the Thatcher government of course, but it’s a mistake to see the whole of HE purely through the prism of the “UGC Crisis” of that period, just because more books have been written about it. It displays a probably unconscious prejudice that only universities are “real HE” because they do research.

    The creation of the National Advisory Body (NAB) for English HE (initially Local Authority HE), which replaced the previously haphazard “inter-authority pooling” arrangements, was a significant development, as was the growth of accreditation arrangements by CNAA that gave more autonomy to institutions to determine curriculum. There was a also a political battleground, with the vast majority of the larger English institutions being under the control of Labour controlled authorities, with representation on NAB, and a certain element of cushioning of the blows of the Tory government controlled purse strings at local level. ILEA under the Livingstone/McDonnell GLC leadership, for example, funded five polytechnics and dozens of other institutions, collectively the largest HE teaching provider in the country. The shift to a more (publicly-funded) fees driven funding system by the Tories (with talk about “vouchers” and “markets” from various education secretaries at the time – I recall the publicly funded fees for institutions doubling at one point in the mid 1980s with a dramatic effect on growth in the non-university sectors), and also the growth of mass unemployment stimulating demand for vocational degrees actually led to a massive expansion in the Polytechnic and other large college sectors, as well as a consolidation of institutional focus after the reductions in teacher education, such that by the end of the 1980s the non-university sectors actually had the majority of student numbers in the so-called “UK HE sector” (actually several sectors then, as of course it is today with “four nations” devolution and “HE in FE”).

    It’s a shame that all the history of that period is not brought out and that the segue from UGC to today is so narrowly presented and the rich tapestry of the wider issues not given the full historic treatment they deserve.

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