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Making Policy in British Higher Education 1945-2011


Michael Shattock


Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2012

Paperback, xviii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-0335241866. 37.99


Reviewed by Robert Anderson

University of Edinburgh



Michael Shattock is Britain's leading expert on university policy and 'governance', with a distinguished career both as a university administrator at Warwick University, and as a writer and consultant. His account of British university policy in Britain since 1945 is thus authoritative, being based on personal experience as well as a wide range of archive sources. It is densely written, and is likely to appeal more to specialists in the field political scientists concerned with policy-making as well as historians than to a wider interested public. It is university history seen from the administrative suite, or the world of Westminster politics, rather than from the lecture or seminar room. At its heart are the negotiations between politicians, civil servants, and powerful interest groups such as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP, later renamed Universities UK), whose records, and those of the University Grants Committee (UGC) through which State funding was channelled from 1919 to 1989, are important sources. But much less is said about debates in the press, or within the academic and scientific community.

The book is arranged thematically, but three periods of development may be identified. From 1945 to the 1960s, culminating in the Robbins report of 1963, there was political consensus on the need for university expansion, which was substantial, but channelled within a conservative conception of university education. This was the heyday of university autonomy under the aegis of the UGC. The 1960s saw the foundation of new campus (or 'plateglass') universities, and the promotion of selected technical colleges to university status. In a second phase, that of the 'binary' policy from 1965 to 1992, there were no new universities, but a parallel system of colleges, especially the thirty 'polytechnics' in England and Wales, took the strain of expansion. In 1992 the binary system was abolished and the polytechnics turned into new universities. In this third period, the system saw an expansion of demand which politicians had not really anticipated, creating problems for public finance which led in due course to a retreat from full State funding to a search for extra sources of revenue. The Blair government forced through a policy of 'top-up' student fees, to supplement state payments, in 2004, and the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 shifted the costs of teaching almost entirely to market-based student fees, made affordable by State loans repayable later in life.

There are two core chapters, one on the structure of higher education, which recounts the rise and fall of the binary system, and one on the 'financial drivers' of higher education policy, where Shattock's central argument is that demand for higher education, a force generated from below rather than created by government policy, but accepted as necessary by all parties, outran the growth of the British economy and made the generous financial support of earlier years unsustainable. Further chapters deal with research policy, the 'politics of accountability' which made universities increasingly subject to control of their finances and standards, and the making of policy at the institutional level, characterised by the growth of managerialism and the decline of academic self-government.

As an account of British policy-making and political culture, this book leaves a dismal impression. Only the Robbins report, and to a much lesser extent the Dearing report of 1997, gave rise to a broad public debate about the purposes of higher education. University policy was hardly ever discussed in Parliament or the Cabinet. Changes of government, and of minister, meant that initiatives were abandoned after a few years, only to reappear under new names. The careful recommendations of consultative bodies like the Dearing committee were ignored or over-ridden. Few ministers had ideas of their own, and those who did, like the champion of neoliberal ideology Keith Joseph, often found their ambitions frustrated. Both the creation of the binary system by Anthony Crosland in 1965, and its abolition in 1992 by Kenneth Clarke, were almost casual decisions rather than policies based on the political principles of their parties, and were often shaped by civil servants, notably the unusually influential Toby Weaver in the case of Crosland.

Shattock's intricate account of the binary phase focuses on the manoeuvrings of pressure groups, and the outcome full university status for the polytechnics reflected a split within the polytechnic movement, and the defeat of those who saw them as the expression of an alternative ideal, with the emphasis on teaching rather than research, on vocational and practical education, and on strong links with local schools and communities. Polytechnics were controlled by elected local authorities, which was anathema both to ambitious academic leaders and to centralising governments, especially Conservative ones when the Labour Party was powerful in local government. Shattock's narrative approach tends to assume that what happened was bound to happen, and that the pro-binary arguments were doomed to fail. But some would argue that many current problems in the British university system arise from trying to impose a uniform national pattern on a set of very different institutions.

There is a similar air of inevitability about Shattock's chapter on finance. His key argument is that politicians had to put a limit to expenditure on universities since (unlike schools or hospitals) they had little emotive appeal to the taxpayer, and could readily be seen as 'elitist'. To expand student numbers while not expanding the budget would have degraded university standards, and the solution was to make students contribute to their education through fees, to pressurise universities to run themselves more cheaply by adopting business methods, and to discriminate informally between universities by directing research funding to an elite sector able to compete internationally. Shattock also shows the power of the Treasury and the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee in imposing rigid rules of financial management on universities as part of the public sector; in theory, marketisation through student choice might increase the universities' autonomy, but Shattock considers this very unlikely to happen.

But was free higher education as unsustainable as Shattock suggests? When a student contribution to fees was first proposed in 1984 by Joseph, it had to be hastily withdrawn because of the hostility of Conservative MPs sensitive to middle-class concerns. Shattock shows how reluctant politicians remained to address this issue. The Conservative Party went into the 2005 election pledged to abolish the modest fees introduced by Tony Blair; it later changed its mind, but when the Liberal Democrats abandoned their hostility to fees as the price of joining the coalition government in 2010 they suffered lasting political damage. There is also the example of Scotland. Since the creation of parliaments in Scotland and Wales in 1999, university policy has been determined separately there (as later in Northern Ireland). Understandably, Shattock does not try to cover policy-making at the devolved level. But in Scotland university fees have been renounced, and the present National Party government regards this as a flagship policy, to which its leader is personally committed. It can also be argued that Scotland has a strong national tradition of regarding university education as a public good to be supported by the taxpayer.(1) Free higher education may not be sustainable fiscally, whether or not Scotland becomes independent after the referendum due in 2014, but the Scottish example shows that it can be a popular policy where the political will is present.

A wider comparative perspective is mostly lacking from Shattock's book, apart from occasional references to the United States the country which usually serves as a model, though often a misunderstood one, for British politicians. Yet the twin problems of how to finance mass participation in higher education, and whether to distinguish the traditional or Humboldtian university organisationally from newer and more practical alternatives, are faced by governments in all advanced countries. European countries have differed in their solutions, but few have gone as far in marketisation as Britain. It is also a paradox, as Shattock observes, that when many countries are trying to give more autonomy to universities which have been part of centralised State systems, the trend in Britain is in the other direction. His book is full of insights and ideas of this kind, though the reader has to work fairly hard to extract them.


(1) R. Anderson, 'The state and university finance in modern Scotland', Scottish Affairs 85 (Autumn 2013) : 29-41.


Cercles 2013

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