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The definitive ranking of HE reviews & legislation

Paul Greatrix once-and-for all sets out the top 10 HE reports and legislation.
This article is more than 5 years old

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

Following the magisterial survey by David Kernohan of higher education reviews and legislation it seems appropriate to take a different angle on this information, one which avoids serious consideration in favour of controversy and distraction from the real issues.

Not since the ranking of West Wing characters has there been such a disputed, ill-conceived and utterly pointless league table.

Ranked by a combined score derived from a judgement of ultimate impact and the outcomes of a comprehensive survey of 50% of registrars based at universities in Nottingham and then weighted, this latest league table is difficult to argue with and yet impossible to defend.

So, without further ado, here’s the top 10 ranking of HE legislation and reviews.

The top ten

10. 2017 Higher Education and Research Act – it’s the new kid on the block but is already having an impact what with the creation of the Office for Students, the establishment of UKRI, Student Protection Plans, incentives for new ‘challenger’ universities and a whole bunch of other exciting regulatory developments.

9. 1994 Education Act – a non-mover at number 9, this little-loved piece of legislation had a significant effect on teacher training, with the creation of the Teacher Training Agency, but also sought to bring change to what was perceived by the then Conservative government as the “closed shop” of student unions by enabling individuals to opt out of membership. A massively inconsequential measure as it turned out.

8. The Browne Review 2010 – climbing up from the lower reaches of the charts, Lord Browne and his report certainly caused a stir back in 2010, recommending uncapped undergraduate fees (rejected by the government and a £9,000 cap imposed) and various other student finance initiatives. Essentially though the report resulted in today’s student finance model.

7. 1986 Education (No 2) Act – up two places this delightful act is still making waves with its requirement that universities “take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”.

6. The Jarratt Report 1985 – dropping out of the top 5 as its recommendations now look rather mild whereas at the time they looked pretty dramatic. The review was concerned with “whether management structures and systems were effective in ensuring that decisions are fully informed, that optimum value is obtained from the use of resources, that policy objectives are clear, and that accountabilities are clear and monitored.” It had a real impact on universities at the time, particularly in changing their committee and management structures and the effect of some of the recommendations can still be felt, albeit faintly.

5. 2004 Higher Education Act – dropping slowly down the chart despite its continued niche popularity this Act introduced variable fees for the first time as well as creating the AHRC and the post of director for fair access.

4. 1992 Further and Higher Education Act – in with a bullet at number 4 this Act has classic appeal with its pathbreaking approach – allowing polytechnics to become universities, creating the funding councils and, joy of joys, establishing a new quality assessment regime. No wonder it is tipped for the top.

3. 1988 Education Reform Act – still holding on at 3 this Act was primarily focused on compulsory education but it also had a real impact on HE including controls on use of the term degree, ending academic tenure and, even more significantly, taking polytechnics out of local authority control.

2. The Dearing Report – a classic from 1997 which is still pressing for the top spot. As Kernohan puts it, Dearing:

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.

It was a thumpingly big report with 93 chunky recommendations covering almost every aspect of HE. David Watson, assessing its impact a decade on, assessed its impact thus:

Watson has calculated that 28% of Dearing’s recommendations have made a difference, 16% have been overtaken by events, 11% were rejected, 29% happened slowly and 16% have seen no specific progress. ‘Members of the committee can be quite proud. It represents a job well done,’ he says.

1. The Robbins Report (1963)

Still at number one after over half a century, this benchmark report had a profound and long lasting impact in its recommendations for expansion of universities, upgrading of CATS and student number growth as well as concluding that university places “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment”. And it recommended the creation of the CNAA (as well as ultimately leading to the creation of a less-than-hugely successful parlour game). While Robbins undoubtedly generates significant report nostalgia among HE wonks, it remains firmly rooted in the number one spot.

So there’s your top 10 in full:

RankNameYear of publication
1The Robbins Report1963
2The Dearing Report1997
3Education Reform Act1988
4Further and Higher Education Act1992
5Higher Education Act2004
6The Jarratt Report1985
7Education (no 2) Act1986
8The Browne Report2010
9Education Act1994
10Higher Education and Research Act2017

No arguments allowed. Please do feel free to add your comments in support though.

4 responses to “The definitive ranking of HE reviews & legislation

  1. I know the 1944 Education Act (AKA the Butler Act) wasn’t strictly a piece of HE legislation or a HE review (and therefore I’m not arguing) but in my mind it should be considered one of the most important pieces of legislation affecting higher education in the 20th century, beyond Robbins, Dearing and the 1992 Act. It set the tone for a full century of increased demand and the fundamental changes required to accommodate it.

    Not that i’m arguing….

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