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


Along with many others I was saddened by the recent death of Shirley Williams.

She was a major figure in UK and international politics and education for longer than my lifetime.  Not only was she a minister who delivered radical change in education she was part of a group who changed the alignment of British politics for a generation (for good or ill depends on your perspective).

Back in 1969, over half a century ago, when Minister for Education and Science, she set out ’13 points’ as a series of suggestions to vice chancellors. I came across these a while ago and had been musing on her 13 points for some time. I was therefore pleased to note this piece from Nick Hillman on HEPI which covered them, following the announcement of the news about Williams.

Hillman set out the 13 points and noted that they had not exactly been welcomed by vice chancellors:

The initial response was far from warm. The article by Alec Merrison, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Bristol (1969-84), from which I have lifted this list (Universities Quarterly, vol. 30, pp.2-14) reminds us that these 13 points ‘were pretty summarily dismissed by the universities’. Moreover, there was apparently ‘little doubt that at least the manner of their dismissal harmed the universities’ stock of credit with politicians and, I would guess, the civil servants.’

The vice-chancellors of the time could not have known that Shirley Williams’s list would come to read, more than 50 years later, like a remarkably prescient summary of the main higher education debates to come over the next half a century under future Conservative, Labour and Coalition Governments.

A surprising baker’s dozen

There are a number of things which struck me about the 13 points:

  • It is difficult to track down the exact source of the list – it this was a speech I think to CVCP, possibly at a conference.
  • There doesn’t appear to be a precise agreed formulation of the 13 points – the list quoted by Nick Hillman is slightly different from the version reported by Mike Shattock, below.
  • The VCs’ initial dismissiveness is reflected in the fact that there is so little commentary around on the 13 points.
  • There aren’t many Ministerial speeches to vice chancellors which have had the long term resonance of this one.
  • There is a reading of this which has it as a classic Ministerial off-the-cuff after dinner style kite-flying provocation. I think this might be plausible were it not the case that so many of these things have come to pass. This was a seriously thought through list.
  • Whilst a good number of the 13 have in the succeeding years happened, most of them have been done to universities rather than at our own volition. Williams was suggesting universities should take these things into their own hands. We chose not to. They happened anyway.

WAC Stewart, in his book Higher Education in Postwar Britain (1989), observes that the Vice-Chancellors seemed more than a little out of touch:

The CVCP cold shoulder to these proposals picked up a good deal of criticism in the educational press, from local authorities and the DES and elsewhere, on the grounds that the universities selfishly refused to cooperate at a time of national need….

Thus the CVCP and most universities took what they thought was a reasoned position against the Williams proposals, but others saw it as a calculated snub, or at least politically inept, ignoring the depth of the financial crisis.

The CVCP says no

Mike Shattock touches on the 13 points and the cold shoulder in his book Making Policy in British Higher Education, 1945-2011 (2012). He helpfully summarises the CVCP response to each point and I’ve paraphrased his comments below:

1. a reduction or removal of student grant-aid, coupled with a system of loans; CVCP opposed.
2. a similar policy at the postgraduate level only; CVCP – ok but need encouragement for PG study and don’t want to reduce numbers.
3. a more restrictive policy as regards the admission of overseas students; numbers small but concern about this.
4. the requirement that grant-aided students should enter specified kinds of employment for a period after graduation, which might have the effect of reducing applications; rejected as damaging.
5. the greater use of part-time and correspondence courses as alternatives to full-time courses; not appropriate for many courses, this is OU territory.
6. the possibility that the most able should have the opportunity to complete a degree course in two years; CVCP totally opposed to this.
7. the possibility of some students not proceeding to the customary three-year course, but to a different course lasting only two years and leading to a different qualification; seen as one for the polytechnics this.
8. the insertion of a gap year between school and university; ok, but optional.
9. more intensive use of buildings; CVCP line was we know, but the spare capacity is in science and engineering buildings where there is a shortage of student numbers.
10. more sharing of facilities ; willing to explore but difficult.
11. more home-based students; no because of need for freedom of choice for students.
12. the development of student housing associations, and other forms of loan-financed provision for student residences; a national scheme is required.
13. some further increase in student/staff ratios; might be possible with economies of scale.

Many of these have since happened or come to the fore in consideration of HE policy matters. Things may have turned out differently if the 13 points had been accepted or they may not but where we ended up was the radical challenge to higher education from the funding changes of 1981. As noted here before things got really very difficult for universities in the early 80s and the cuts imposed were genuinely game-changing for universities. And not in a good way.

You are the weakest link

Martin Trow, in a piece written in 1988, really captures the significance of the rejection of the 13 points in the period after their delivery (‘Comparative Perspectives on Higher Education Policy in the UK and the US‘, Oxford Review of Education, 1988, Vol. 14, No. 1,  pp. 81-96):

During the past quarter century a number of events have marked the slow decline in university autonomy, while at the same time may have revealed the ineffectiveness of efforts-in universities or outside them-to slow or halt what has seemed increasingly to be an inexorable process. Each of these events pointed up the weakness of leadership in British higher education-in each university, but more importantly, of the ‘system’ as a whole. One of these events occurred in 1969, when the universities rejected then Secretary of State Shirley Williams’ ‘thirteen points’ suggesting self- administered economies, on the grounds that they would threaten academic standards.

With the wisdom of hindsight, this relatively gentle intervention of government might have led to the creation of machinery by the universities to do the necessary planning and cutting. But who could have taken the initiative for such a radical innovation? What was needed was institutional leadership. The UGC and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) are the only bodies that speak for and to British universities as a whole. One might even imagine that they resemble the Boards of Trustees and the President’s Office of big American state university systems (Caston, 1979). But neither the UGC nor the CVCP was or is able to function as the governing structure of the British university system. British universities are a system only as the object of policy; as the source of policy they are an aggregation of autonomous institutions. And into that policy vacuum central government has steadily moved, first through the UGC, and after 1988 through other instruments.

So Shirley Williams’ ‘thirteen points’ were more a symptom of the weakness of university governance than an opportunity to reform and strengthen it. As a result, much worse was to come.

This is a particularly astute point I think from Trow. The response really demonstrated the parlous state of universities and their governance at the time. But the issue is still relevant today if we consider the role of government and its relationship to the sector. Trow was talking about the second Thatcher government at the time but this could arguably be a comment made today:

I do not think that British governments – even this one – know or perhaps even want to know how to manage a university. And yet the present government wants to direct the system, if not to manage it.

This still really resonates. However, later in the essay Trow makes another sharp observation which I thought was particularly insightful (and amusing):

Universities everywhere, and in England not least of all, are skilful at subverting central government policy. Central governments and their creatures have of course the power of the purse, and can threaten financial punishment for recalcitrance or delay. But such atomic weapons are nearly useless against guerrilla warfare. It may be that the British university’s most valuable asset in the years to come will be a strong and creative registrar.

AHUA members will I am sure be nodding vigorously at that.

Greetings to the new brunette

Would it have made a difference if those Vice-Chancellors and the CVCP had responded differently to Shirley Williams’ challenge? Who knows, but it does seem to me that by  facing into some of these challenges back then universities now may have been in a much stronger position than we are and less at the mercy of an unsupportive government. Collectively, as Trow suggests, we would have been better placed to exert much more control over our own destiny.

Regardless of the market-driven changes introduced over the past years, universities have always sought to protect their  autonomy not just from government interference but also often from any meaningful dilution through pooled sovereignty, even though we collaborate, often selflessly, in other dimensions. I’ve written here before about the difficulties of securing a collective approach among independent and diverse institutions particularly at a time of significant regulatory, political, financial and viral challenge.

Shirley Williams’ 13 points, although they could be read as a series of provocations to a group of sceptical vice-chancellors, deserved infinitely more serious consideration than they received at the time, the fact that many of them are now accepted parts of the landscape must give us pause for thought.

This all serves to remind us too that having ministers of calibre, intellectual weight and with a sense of future possibilities involved is indeed a rare experience in British political life and especially in relation to education.

One response to “Shirley Williams’ 13 higher education suggestions

Leave a Reply