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Education: University sector under pressure

21 September 2012

John Howson considers how the higher-education sector has changed in the past 40 years, and looks at some of the challenges ahead

Diversity: professions such as nursing have been affected by the change in university entry requirements

Diversity: professions such as nursing have been affected by the change in university entry requirements

FORTY years ago, the landscape of higher education was very different from today; yet in some ways it was also very similar.

Economically, the country was experiencing the peak of the "Barber boom" - an oil-price shock, years of "stagflation", and a retreat from manufacturing were yet to come - and the higher-education sector had just absorbed the changes set out in the Robbins report of 1963.

Lord Robbins had advanced the principle that higher-education courses should be available to all who qualified and wished to study, a view accepted by the incoming Labour Government, in 1964, under Harold Wilson. The Government also accepted Robbins' view that student numbers should increase to about 400,000 - approximately a four-fold increase in undergraduate numbers.

In 1965, the Labour Government introduced the new polytechnic sector. The Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) was formed, with its national supervision of degree standards in that sector. And, at the end of the decade, the Open University was established. Their formation constituted the embodiment of an ideal that was the antithesis of the utilitarianism that pervades current thinking about higher education.

Monotechnic colleges, run by local authorities and mainstream churches, still trained the majority of teachers, especially those destined to work in primary schools. Like the universities, most of these colleges - allied to the wider university sector through Area Training Organisations and the supervision of qualifications - were small, residential institutions, often located in cathedral cities, or, in some cases, former military establishments. The age of the fully funded undergraduate was reaching its zenith.

Students mostly lived away from home, often in campus-based universities that, in some cases, resembled the collegiate structures of the older universities, but in other cases deliberately set out to create new models of organisation and course structures that broke the existing mould. This was done by, for instance, the introduction of new subjects that cut across existing disciplines.

Improved school staying-on rates - which had already started in many parts of the country before the school-leaving age was raised to 16, in 1972 - promised a steady growth in student numbers for the foreseeable future, even if the participation of 18-year-olds remained close to its post-Robbins, 1970s level.

Civil-science research-funding was firmly embedded in the education department at Westminster, under the control of an Oxford-trained chemistry graduate - Margaret Thatcher.

NOW, 40 years later, there are more than 160 degree-awarding universities in the UK, compared with fewer than 50 in the '60s.

Almost all of the surviving teacher-training colleges have expanded and become universities, or university colleges, along with some of the larger colleges of further and higher education. The remaining few will achieve university accreditation in the next year or so, once the size restriction has been relaxed. Polytechnics, founded mostly in the unfashionable parts of London, in response to Robbins, have also become universities.

Degrees are now also being awarded by a small number of private universities, with the prospect of more to come, either allied to specific employers or openly competing for students with more traditional universities.

Colleges of further education, which have an honourable tradition of providing part-time higher education for people in full-time employment, are now looking to offer full-time degree courses, but charging less than traditional universities, thereby attracting more cost-conscious students.

This could establish a new sector that mirrors the two-year higher-education courses awarded by the community colleges found in many parts of the United States. But how the standards of such degrees will be judged across a sector where grade inflation has been widespread, must be a matter of concern for the whole sector.

Most universities are much larger than they were 40 years ago, and at least ten now have more than 30,000 students. Universities were forced to grow in size, due not only to the increase in student numbers, but because they have had to accommodate a larger percentage of those studying for degrees.

Universities now also operate as businesses, competing with each other, and other universities in the developed world, to attract the significantly increased number of overseas students from across the EU, the Commonwealth, and Asia's emerging economies - especially China - seeking higher education.

ALTHOUGH the one-time target of getting 50 per cent of 18-year-olds to attend a university will probably never be reached - if, indeed, it was ever desirable - the age participation rate is still at a level unimagined in 1972. Nevertheless, there still remains an argument between those who question the need for so many undergraduates, and those who think that the future knowledge economy will require ever greater numbers of graduates.

To fund this expansion of higher education, the burden of paying for university degrees has been progressively transferred from the state to the individual. First, benefits were withdrawn from students during vacations, under the Social Security Act 1986; then maintenance during term-time disappeared. But the big change in state support for students did not occur until after the election of the Labour Government in 1997, although it had been foreshadowed by the previous Conservative Government. Tuition fees - paid by undergraduates on what had previously been known as "mandatory award courses", and funded free under the Robbins principle - were introduced for the first time in more than half a century.

After another review, started by the Labour Government under Gordon Brown, the Coalition Government that was elected in 2010 allowed universities to increase course fees up to a maximum of £9000, but repayment on graduate loans did not start until after graduation, and only after a specific salary level was reached - essentially, a "capped" form of graduate tax. Universities were also required to introduce measures to help poor students.

NONE of these changes has, so far, seriously dented the rise in the number of young people seeking to obtain a degree, possibly because of the Government mantra that, over a lifetime, graduates earn more than those without degrees.

Whether this will remain true for the larger number of today's graduates - in jobs generally not previously regarded as requiring skills developed by higher education - only time will tell.

Time will also reveal whether, as Governments also claim, graduates remain healthier and commit less crime than non-graduates, and so are less likely to become a burden on the state.

Has more meant worse? Probably. But that is not the fault of the universities - or, indeed, of the students.

Over the past 40 years, the school examination system, with the introduction of the GCSE, has shifted, not only to a common examination, at 16, for most pupils, whether they are destined for university or not, but also away from a norm-referenced system, with a fixed percentage of passes at each grade, to a criterion-referenced system, that allowed more than 40 per cent of A-level students in both Physics and Chemistry to achieve A or A* grades in 2011.

Students have also moved towards studying a much broader range of subjects. Forty years ago, most university-bound pupils studied seven to nine subjects at 16. Today, some study up to 12 or 13, and more take up to five A-levels, often dropping those not needed for university entrance in their final year.

With the best will in the world, and even with better teaching, and much harder working students, it is likely that breadth of knowledge has replaced depth among pre-university students.

The debate about both the EBacc, at 16, and the issue of compulsory mathematics for all 16-to-18-year-olds means that this argument about breadth, or depth of study, pre-university, has not yet been resolved. But there is strong pressure, from parts of the university sector, for higher standards from university entrants.

In a world where knowledge-based industries that did not even exist 40 years ago are now vital to the economic health of the country, the university sector has had to identify whether it can help to solve the problem, especially in the science, maths, and technology-based subjects rather than just blame the schools.

Whether the new learning tech-nologies, likely to emerge over the next decade, will make a difference, it is too early to say, but 40 years ago the concept that book- and journal-based libraries were at the heart of the learning experience was not being challenged.

Even 20 years ago, most academics had not heard of the internet, and did not own a mobile phone. At some point in the next 40 years, traditional libraries will come under the curatorship of university museum services.

The past 40 years have seen widespread growth in new subjects at degree level, and qualifications in many areas, such as nursing, teaching, planning, and computing, and in the business community, will be incorporated into degree courses.

Not everyone has welcomed this proliferation, and some talk of "Mickey Mouse" degrees. Although, as the Universities Minister, David Willetts, pointed out in his first speech as minister, made to an audience at the University of Birmingham, the university's Applied Golf Management Studies degree had 109 applications for 25 places, and minimum A-level grades of ABB, in 2009.

Perhaps the more effective charge is against low standards, sloppy teaching, and a lack of rigour and depth appropriate to degree-level studies. The past 40 years has also seen growing utilitarianism, with subjects such as theology and philosophy under constant review in the universities where they are still taught. Perhaps renaming them ethics, and including them in the Business School, might be their best hope.

One other change has been the growth in postgraduate study, especially in taught masters' courses such as the MBA, where top universities can charge students a fee more than double what they charge for undergraduate courses.

Despite the large expansion of undergraduate numbers, the socio-economic background of students has not significantly altered over the past 40 years. A student on free school meals is still unlikely to make it to Oxbridge - or, indeed, in many cases, to any other university, Russell Group or otherwise.

Mass higher education has resulted in a more unequal society, and whether it has been part of the cause is open to debate. But for the churches, now with their own dozen or so universities and university colleges, often based on former teacher-training colleges - many that have expanded out of all recognition - there needs to be a clear policy on what their involvement in higher education is all about.

It is important for the sector to remember that this is the time, as the number of 18-year-olds starts to decline over the next decade, for serious planning for an uncertain future, especially as competition for overseas students is likely to become even fiercer, as they are increasingly seen as an important source of income for higher-education institutions around the world.

Almost half a century after Robbins, it may be time to take a detailed look at the whole shape of higher education, and where as a nation we want it to be in the future.

Forty years ago, state planning was still central to decisions about the future; today, the market rules supreme. But is the shaping of higher education too important to leave to unbridled capitalism? Might the bankers and scientists of tomorrow benefit from studying alongside those debating the notion whether there can ever be a "just war"?

Professor John Howson is the managing director of Education Data Surveys, part of the TSL Group, and a visiting Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University's Department of Education.


SEVEN new diocesan directors of education took up their posts this term.

Huw Thomas, taking over at Sheffield, is a former head teacher in the diocese and an occasional contributor to the Church Times; David Channon, at Derby, and Quentin Roper, at Canterbury, are also former heads.

Miranda Robinson became DDE in Peterborough, and Theresa Gale, the new DDE at Bath & Wells, was formerly deputy in the same diocese. Jackie Waters-Dewhurst, formerly in Bristol diocese, has now taken over in Lincoln.

In Chelmsford, Tim Elbourne has been appointed to the role of DDE. He is currently director of education in Ely, and is expected to take up his new position in January 2013.

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