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Aspects de l’enseignement supérieur en Grande-Bretagne

Higher Education in England and Wales : Power struggles underlying reforms since the early Thatcher years

Luttes de pouvoir et réformes depuis le début de l'ère Thatcher dans l'enseignement supérieur en Angleterre et au Pays de Galles
Cécile Deer
p. 22-39

Résumé

Cet article analyse l’enseignement supérieur anglais et ses évolutions au cours des vingt-cinq dernières années à travers le prisme d’une compréhension qui s’organise autour de la notion de pouvoir social et la (re)distribution de ses sources politiques, financières, scientifiques et idéologiques. L’article est une esquisse de la manière dont les gouvernements successifs ont pu se rendre maîtres du jeu en matière de politique d’enseignement supérieur en s’appropriant la plus grande partie des sources du pouvoir social au dépens de la profession universitaire. Ce qui ressort de l’analyse c’est que malgré l’impact traumatisant pour la communauté universitaire des changements intervenus, le tout relève moins d’une notion de mutation dans le sens où cela supposerait une discontinuité, que d’une notion d’évolution car c’est bien une impression de continuité qui prévaut. Le modèle explicatif le plus pertinent n’est pas celui du marché universitaire, ce n’est pas non plus celui de la société de marché. La structure et la structuration des échanges sociaux entre les divers groupes d’intérêts autour de l’idée d’université demeurent décentralisées et multilatérales, l’élaboration structurelle du changement restant fondamentalement inchangée.

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Texte intégral

1This article describes the growing intervention of the State in higher education policy in England and Wales since the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979. The framework of understanding is based on a notion of on-going exchanges of social resources (political, financial, ideological, scientific) between identifiable agencies. This is used to define and redefine the modalities of interrelationships between the State and the universities.

Growing political intervention

  • 1  Martin Trow, Managerialism and the Academic Profession: Quality and Control, Stockholm, Council fo (...)

2According to Martin Trow, two stages may be identified in the way central government has piloted higher education reforms in England over the last two decades1. The first period was that of soft managerialism. The universities were asked to make greater efforts to meet the requirements of non-academic stakeholders. James Callaghan’s speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, in the wake of the International Monetary Fund’s intervention in 1976, foreshadowed this trend. This consideration became even clearer when, in 1981, the Secretary of State for Education, Mark Carlisle, warned that the universities could no longer continue to be the “fat cats” of the educational world. It was announced that the total university budget would have to be reduced by 17% within three years. Two fields of study were sheltered from the overall reduction in funding: engineering and technology. Thus, central government was starting to use its financial leverage to steer the system according to its own stated priorities.  

3At the time, representatives of older universities believed that they were still in a position to retain the unit of resource (i.e. the average amount of public funding per full time equivalent (FTE) student) as the ultimate measurement for assessing and maintaining quality in their institutions. Even strike action—a rare occurrence in English academia—was organised in order to protest against the government move. Institutions warned that any decrease in government funding would be matched by a similar decrease in student intake. In fact, this approach was partially successful as most universities were able to maintain their unit of resource until about the mid-1980s. It was the public sector of higher education (i.e. the polytechnics) that first saw its numbers rise and its unit of resource decrease. In order to maintain overall income and to limit staff redundancies, institutions in this sector registered as many students as possible. Traditional universities had more financial, social, legal and professional resources to cushion themselves against the financial and ideological downturn, whereas the public sector of higher education was far more sensitive to political interventions because it lacked financial reserves, social status and internal professional recognition. However, university teachers had not realised the extent to which the mood of the general public had swung against them. Tactically speaking, their initial position turned out to be most unsuccessful. Employers and anxious tax-paying parents were no longer prepared to accept their case as being justified, which gave central government the ideological upper-hand. “Fat cats”, “arrogant elite”, “ivory tower”, “protection of vested interest” are terms that have been repeatedly used since to justify the stream of reforms imposed on the higher education sector.

  • 2  Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Report of the Steering Group on University Efficienc (...)

4In the mid-1980s, the soft managerial approach was superseded by a much harderone. This was epitomised by the content of the Report on University Efficiency published in 1985 and known as the Jarrat Report2. Significantly, this enquiry was commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP). The academic profession thus tried to pre-empt government moves by taking the initiative, a double-edged strategy which it has persistently employed. The conclusions of the Jarrat Report were unequivocal: not only should universities strive to meet the needs of wider society, they should also strive to do so as efficiently as possible by applying mainstream management techniques to their activities. The report made conspicuous use of terms and concepts borrowed directly from the corporate world with “vice-chancellors’ becoming the universities’ chief executives”, for example. Since then, the universities have become accustomed to this kind of discourse but, at the time, it was a clear signal that academics were falling behind in the rhetorical contest. This should not have come as too great a surprise though, for the terms and recommendations of the Jarrat Report echoed the type of policy carried out by central government in the public services and in areas of the welfare state such as the National Health Service (NHS). Public organisations whose activities were considered by central government to have been sheltered until then from the pressure of real competition were to be become “leaner and meaner”, i.e. more efficient, by being exposed to the pressure of external and internal competition. This has been achieved by a combination of repeated budgetary cuts and the introduction of discriminatory evaluative procedures. In particular, quality assessments of research activities have influenced the allocation of government funding so that universities have had to compete against each other to secure a share of the rapidly decreasing funds available.

  • 3  Tom Owen,“The University Grants Committee”, Oxford Review of Education, vol. 6, n° 6, 1980, 255-27 (...)
  • 4  P. Reynolds, “Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer’s Paper”, Universities Quarterly, vol. 38, n° 2, 1984, 95.

5It was the University Grants Committee, the organisation that had long been praised for guaranteeing academic autonomy3, which (reluctantly or not) introduced this change. Once the UGC as an independent buffer, or more accurately as a body promoting the interests of the profession within political circles, had yielded to government pressure, its role was radically transformed. This sealed the fate of what had been for half a century “hailed as a striking example of the putative political genius of the British4. The perpetuation of such a “gentlemen’s agreement” in the matter of public funding for higher education relied on the fact that successive governments had never questioned the UGC’s estimates and requirements. This changed throughout the 1980s, revealing the fragile political and ideological foundation on which the autonomy of English universities was built.

State piloting through funding: the evaluation of research activities

6In 1981, drastic cuts were unilaterally introduced by the Government and, from that point onwards, public money made available for higher education was to decrease in real terms. Five years later, the UGC decided to start allocating the increasingly scarce government money for research on a selective basis. Since then, research assessment exercises (RAEs) have been conducted every three to five years and have become major battlefields in the struggle for power between the academic profession and central government, with the latter gradually affirming its authority. RAEs come in the form of peer-review assessments of the quality of research in each main subject area and, to this extent, the academic profession can be said to be responsible for managing its own affairs. However, as ratings obtained by the different university departments have not only been widely publicised but have also been used by the polity to distribute the diminishing amount of public funding for research to universities, a “divide-and-rule” principle has been applied by the political centre to weaken the cohesion of the profession and to limit its capacity for autonomous action.

7Selectivity exercises have always been controversial. At first, it was the discretionary process by which the UGC had selected the universities for the distribution of research grants which came under attack. Today, criticisms are centered on the simplistic and ever more numerous criteria that are applied in order to rank university departments. The egalitarian ethos and the apparent unity of the profession have been damaged beyond C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” divide. Numerous sources of internal divisions, from redundancies to the current demand for greater differentiation in salaries by the internal allocation of funds based on merit and performance-related pay, have weakened the collective bargaining power of the academic profession. Its internal boundaries have been redefined through pressure from government, which has used its legal power to prevent certain practices and its financial power to encourage others.

  • 5  See Denis Lawton, The Tory Mind on Education, 1979-1994, London, Falmer, 1994.
  • 6 Education Reform Act, London, HMSO, 1988, Clause 134, 6.

8With the original raison d’être of the UGC fast disintegrating, its replacement by the University Funding Council (UFC) in 1988 was a continuation of the path chosen by central government to steer higher education activities5. The UGC consisted mainly of university professors whereas the UFC had a larger number of members appointed from industry and commerce and was clearly empowered to attach terms and conditions to the provision of funds to any institution6. At the same time, the 1988 Education Act rendered statutory the separation between research and teaching throughnew funding methodologies. This was another move towards entrenching a new political vision of university education at a time when academics were still clinging to a Humboldtian normative ethos which considered research and teaching to be intrinsically complementary. The ailing funding arrangements, whereby each university, through the intermediary of the UGC, received a block grant whose value was based on student number formulae which included the cost of research, was replaced de facto, if not de jure, by contractual arrangements for which funding allocations would have to be backed by financial memoranda.

9The new means of funding teaching activities was also significant in diminishing the autonomy of the academic profession. In the second half of the 1980s, the Conservative cabinet had come round to the idea that expansion was desirable but that it could not be achieved at unit of resource equivalence. The universities were invited to bid for student places in various subject areas on the basis of historical guidelines, deflated to allow for efficiency gains necessary to adapt to the new funding environment. The UGC issued “guide prices” assuming that universities would try to under-cut one another’s offers. But traditional universities were still capable of ignoring such financial prodding. They bid mostly at indicated prices which defeated the purpose of an exercise which was soon to be abandoned. The central political power had lost this round of the reforming battle but a similar funding initiative implemented by the Polytechnics’ and Colleges’ Funding Council (PCFC) in the public sector of higher education proved more successful. Once again, it was easier for central government to steer change in institutions with few financial resources and little social status.

  • 7  This doubled the number of universities almost overnight.
  • 8  Bahram Bekhrania, “RAE goes forth and multiplies”, Times Higher Education Supplement, 14 November (...)
  • 9  See Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Realising our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Enginee (...)

10By 1992, another far-reaching political plan to force efficiency gains in the higher education sector was implemented. The polytechnics were given the right to re-label themselves as universities—which they all quickly did7—and all universities, “new” and “old”, were made to compete for government money through the newly-established Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Since then, the competition between university departments for thinly-spread HEFCE research funding has become fierce, all the more as it has been the last pocket of public money available for the pursuit of autonomous research activities. Funding from the Research Councils and from external sources (e.g. charities, industry) tends to come with strings attached. So far, HEFCE research grant allocation has remained undirected and money may be distributed at the discretion of the universities regardless of their individual departments’ RAE ratings but the Funding Council is toying with the idea of controlling more closely the distribution of research spending8. For English academics, the worst aspect of central government’s ambition has been its increased willingness to link research spending to externally defined priorities9.

The evaluation of teaching activities

  • 10  See Eric Robinson, The New Polytechnics: The People’s Universities, Victoria, Penguin Books (Austr (...)
  • 11  See David Watson, Managing the Modular Course: Perspectives from Oxford Polytechnic, Buckingham, S (...)
  • 12  See Harold Silver, A Higher Education: The Council for National Academic Awards and British Higher (...)

11While research has been rationalised through competition for funding and central planning, teaching activities have been rationalised by a reinforcement of central control and a demand for greater accountability. This has proved less easy to implement and, once again, one finds a significant difference between the ground that needed to be more or less willingly seeded by the traditional universities and the demands made on their public sector counterparts. In contrast to the traditional universities, where the quality of teaching was taken for granted because it was based on a liberal ethos, public sector higher education institutions grew with formal evaluation procedures built into their activities10. Until 1992, public sector higher education institutions were not entitled to grant their own degrees but, in order to show that parity of esteem with the universities was actively sought and with a view to safeguarding standards, their programmes and courses were scrutinised and validated by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA). At first, the CNAA enforced strict controls. Courses as well as whole institutions were assessed by teams of university academics, appointed as inspectors. Courses had to be described, explained, approved and validated. Students were entitled to give feedback and staff development and critical self-appraisal were common practice. From the very beginning, therefore, the polytechnics were subjected to detailed validation procedures11. At the same time, they were accustomed to answering to a variety of external interest groups, such as local authorities, regional advisory councils, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI), academic bodies and professional institutions. Soft managerial practices were therefore always part of the polytechnics’ culture. Over the years, however, there was a slackening in controlling regulations, which became more indicative than compulsory12. Managerial teams at institutional level were allowed to carry out on their own certain tasks that had previously been formally assessed. In general, the CNAA perceived its role as being a tough inspector and adviser but not a government watchdog, which explains why the National Advisory Board (NAB) found itself in an uneasy position when it started to ask the CNAA for information to decide on the allocation of funds. It also explains the CNAA’s rapid demise when, at the beginning of the 1990s, central government sought to further its decision-making power in higher education matters.

  • 13  See Report of the Working Group on Good Management Practice, London, National Advisory Board for P (...)

12Government had started to move in this direction at the end of 1981 when it set up the National Advisory Board for local higher education to advise on the funding and operational needs of the public sector institutions. In 1987, the Board published a report on good management practices for polytechnics, which paralleled the kind of recommendations that had been formulated by the Jarrat Report concerning the universities13. At the time, however, the polytechnics were still within the remit of Local Education Authorities, which could limit the impact of decisions taken at the political centre. When the polytechnics became free-standing institutions, the Board was replaced by the Polytechnic and College Funding Council (PCFC), operating at central level. From then onwards, the strategy implemented was clear. The polity had weakened the power of local authorities and, at the same time, had set about unifying and systematising a large part of the post-secondary education sector. The passing of a new Act making the new arrangements official was just a matter of time and indeed came four years later.

  • 14  See Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Academic Standards in Universities, London, CVCP (...)

13It was becoming harder for traditional universities to resist the trend towards greater accountability in their teaching processes and practice. Of course, part of university teaching has traditionally been subjected to the scrutiny of external agencies in subject areas leading to organised professions. However, the universities were able to use their position as free-standing institutions to insist that, if they were to move in the direction of greater accountability for their teaching procedures, this would have to be agreed and organised internally. Once more, the CVCP played an important role in the unfolding of events by setting up an informal audit group at the beginning of the 1980s—the Reynolds Committee—designed to investigate and provide guidance in such matters as the role of external examiners, the examining of research degree students, the monitoring of courses and the use of professional bodies14. Initially, each university was free to follow advice on quality assurance but, at the turn of the 1990s, the CVCP took a more drastic measure by setting up an Academic Audit Unit (AAU) responsible for formally evaluating internal quality assurance procedures. For the first time, universities would have to submit their teaching practices to the scrutiny of external peers but, in truth, this auditing practice was designed so that the profession could keep the upper-hand in teaching quality matters. No direct teaching inspection was on the agenda. Selected senior academics would check the documents relating to the university programmes to see whether courses were being regularly reviewed and whether feedback from students and external inspectors was being heeded.

  • 15  The HEQC was a company limited by guarantee owned by the CVCP, the Conference of Scottish Centrall (...)
  • 16  See Ronald Barnett, “The Evaluation of the Higher Education System in the United Kingdom”, in Robe (...)

14Bearing in mind the provisions of the 1992 Education Act, it appears that the CVCP was acting in anticipation of what central government had in store. In addition to the responsibility for carrying out RAEs, the HEFCE was given the task of undertaking Teaching Quality Assessments (TQAs) in separate subject areas every five years. The profession was quick to react to this accumulation of new constraints. As polytechnics became fully-fledged degree-awarding institutions, it set up its own quality assurance body in May 1992, the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC15) which took over responsibility for quality audits and quality enhancement as well as credit and access for the whole of the newly defined academic community. This led to a situation where two major national bodies were concerned with the evaluation of quality in English higher education: the HEQC, reporting to the academic community, and the Funding Council, answerable to central government. Not surprisingly, the types of quality assessment carried out by the Funding Council have left less room for exercising academic freedom16. To the considerable distaste of university teachers, assessment procedures have included classroom observation and teaching sessions have been graded individually.

15This brief outline illustrates the kind of on-going bargaining process which has characterised educational change in England. But the story does not end there. The struggle between central government and the academic profession for control over quality auditing has continued since. With the Dearing Enquiry in 1997, the problem came once more to the fore. The subsequent report recommended the creation of an Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILTHE) for the professional training of academics. The CVCP was quick to endorse this proposition and swiftly moved to try to incorporate the new institute by the beginning of the following academic year. At the same time, they pronounced themselves in favour of an enhanced external examiner system, where examiners would be accredited by the ILTHE rather than the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Their hope was that this would entail the demise of the government-sponsored Teaching Quality Assessments. Some universities, such as Cambridge or Oxford, have already been so bold as to refuse to take part in the next round of TQAs. In other terms, as the newly established Quality Assurance Agency seeks to introduce a new system for policing academic standards, the political and diplomatic game has continued between representatives of higher education institutions and their central authority.

16Following the 1997 Dearing Report, means-tested tuition fees of a maximum of £1,000 per year rising with inflation were introduced. This political decision did not encounter many objections in academia. As the Labour government had pledged not to increase its budget for public spending beyond that of its predecessor, fees represented a short-term guarantee against a further sliding in overall funding. In a first stage, the Government sought to curb the independence of the academic profession by limiting its ability to charge top-up fees to all or part of their home student body. Government moves were geared towards the creation of a centrally-organised national higher education system based on equality gained through tighter controls by central government and its agencies. However, in implementing fees, the Government has placed in the hands of the academic profession the sole weapon that the latter might be in a position to use so as to recover part of its autonomy of action. This is what has been at stake in the debates surrounding recent Government plans for higher education, which propose relaxing the limitations on fee levels while imposing other forms of politically acceptable restrictions such as the exclusion of up-front fees or the increased monitoring of the social origins of the student intake.

The reaction of the academic community

  • 17  See Department of Education and Science, Higher Education: A New Framework, Cmd 1541, London, HMSO (...)
  • 18  See Frantz Van Vught, “Dangerous Curves: An International Analysis of Participation Growth and Hig (...)

17The academic profession’s responses to government pressures have come at various times and in different forms according to the financial and social resources of institutions. As a general rule, the universities have had to increase their standing by offering services to a wider range of social groups. For any educational institution, there are three main sources of non-government funding: collaboration with industry through research and consultancy, donations or endowments and tuition fees. Since fees at undergraduate level are legally fixed at central level, English universities have had to rely on the other two sources to maintain a degree of freedom fromthe demands of the political centre. The latter has taken an active role in promoting such links, essentially through the use of its own financial power17. As a result, higher education data from the UK show continued increases in the proportion of private funding of universities18.

  • 19  Margaret Archer, Social Origins of Educational Systems, London, Sage, 1979, 511. See also E. P. Th (...)
  • 20  See David Warner and David Palfreyman (eds), Higher Education Management: The Key Elements, Buckin (...)

18The consequence of the decrease in state funding, combined with an increased tendency on the part of the political centre to steer and control academic affairs, has made it increasingly difficult for the academic profession to negotiate on either financial or normative grounds and to be able to afford itself “the luxury of a conscience19 by declining certain offers in the name of the preservation of standards, integrity and expertise. Meanwhile, even high status institutions like Oxford and Cambridge have had to justify controversial business partnerships (e.g. Microsoft at Cambridge, Nissan and the Wafic Saïd Business School at Oxford). This represents a major difference between the situation of academics today and their situation at the beginning of the 20th century. What has become increasingly difficult for the profession is not so much to retain a form of autonomy by devising attractive training and research programmes but, in times of decreasing government funding, to extract from such links the surplus necessary for the pursuit of internally defined goals. It has become increasingly important to calculate accurately the pro-rata of fixed costs which are to be applied to different research contracts with external parties, which has led more generally to the use of mainstream management accounting techniques within university administrative procedures20.

  • 21  See Susan Weil (ed), Introducing Change from the Top in Universities and Colleges, London, Kogan P (...)
  • 22  See Gareth Williams, Changing Patterns of Finance in Higher Education, Buckingham, Society for Res (...)

19As the system has moved closer to a buyer’s market both in relation to students and in relation to business and industrial groups, the bargaining position of academics has steadily declined. Not only have they lost the power to integrate the external decision-making process, but their influence has also diminished internally within their own higher education institutions. The power of academic senates has declined as managerial techniques have been refined to regulate and steer activities internally21. Traditional academic consultative procedures have suffered in the process22. Lately, even the wealthiest institutions such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have had to reorganise their collegial practices despite or perhaps because of increasing their income throughprivate research contracts and fundraising campaigns. All higher education institutions are now feeling the financial pinch. They are in a position where they have to adapt their management structures, staff management, student enrolment and ultimately their core activities to resist the encroachment of the polity in the hope of releasing as many financial resources as possible for internal initiatives.

  • 23  See Brian Salter and Ted Tapper, Education, Politics and the State: The Theory and Practice of Edu (...)
  • 24  See Lord Crowther-Hunt, “Policy Making and Accountability in Higher Education”, in Michael Shattoc (...)
  • 25  See Martin Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980, Harmondswor (...)

20The debate opposing the so-called “utilitarian” and the “knowledge-for-its-own-sake” stances has had a direct impact on the shaping of higher education since the end of the 1970s. In those days, direct co-operation with industry and relevance of the curricula to the outer world was held in suspicion. With his speech at Ruskin College in 1976, the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, was one of the first leading British politicians to send shock waves through academia by clearly spelling out the need for a greater connection between what was being taught at tertiary level and what the British economy and British society supposedly needed23. Already the polytechnics had been conceived as alternative higher education institutions designed to bring the whole of the university sector closer in line with what the government of the day deemed essential, that is to say closer to regional and professional needs. Since the 1980s, the speeches and discourses is emerging from the various political quarters have endorsed similar beliefs24. Discussions have centred around the notion of socio-economic challenges with Britain's unsatisfactory economic performance being linked to an apparently abiding national contempt for practical occupations25.

  • 26  See Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Development of a Strategy for Higher Education i (...)
  • 27  See Enterprise in Higher Education, 1988-1989; 1989-1990, Sheffield, Training Agency, 1990.
  • 28  See Roger Murphy, The Key Skills of Students Entering Higher Education: A Report of a Project Comm (...)

21The academic profession first tried to put up some sort of resistance26. A persistent feature of the debate has been the conflict between the type of knowledge academics thought was valuable at university and the repeated requests from the polity allied to various industrial interests and growth in student demand for greater “relevance’ of university courses and programmes. Significantly, central government has used part of its financial resources—albeit a relatively small amount—to modify certain aspects of university curricula, in particular in those subject areas that have been deemed to offer no clear vocational added-value27. Central government has tried to meet the interests of students, who have grown anxious to send the right message to potential employers. When a report on the skills of students entering higher education found that more than 80% failed to achieve satisfactory levels in communication, the application of numbers and information technology, it was recommended that university entrance requirements should include key skills elements28. The chart below indicates that while repeatedly driving through funding cuts throughout higher education, central government has used its financial and legal resources to pilot the system.

Index of Total Public Funding to Higher Education, 1980-2000

Image1

  • 29  Department for Education and Science, Higher Education Statistics for the United Kingdom, London, (...)

Sources: DfES, Greenaway, HEFCE29.

  • 30  See Anne Griffin and Ronald Barnett, The End of Knowledge in Higher Education, London, Cassell, 19 (...)

22By giving students greater influence over the orientation of their studies without abandoning altogether the ability to maintain control from the centre, Government has transformed a situation where academics could define what valuable knowledge should be passed on to society at large into one where society can determine what is worth learning and teaching and then require it from the academic profession30. Gradually, academics have been expected to state clearly-defined learning objectives and performance standards. Courses have been explicitly required to be well-balanced, taking on board criteria such as breadth, relevance and differentiation. Examinations have taken the form of more criteria-referenced assessments. Central government has sided with the Confederation of British Industry in its expectations regarding the communication skills, flexible, innovative and independent behaviour and expertise in information technology that graduates should possess on leaving university. So far, however, the debate has concentrated on the definition of these terms and a general re-labelling of common practices rather than effective action.

  • 31  See John Stephenson and Susan Weil, Quality in Learning: A Capability Approach in Higher Education(...)
  • 32  According to Clive Booth, former Vice-Chancellor at Oxford Brookes University, speaking at Wolfson (...)

23It has been difficult for the academic profession to take radical steps to oppose this trend. The only available strategy has been to try to re-orientate this process in as suitable a manner as possible to preserve its own interests and autonomy. For years the pressure had been building up for the universities to “modernise” their programmes and curricula so that their teaching might become more relevant to life in the non-academic world. Beyond the obvious normative debates that accompanied this question, there was a sense among members of the profession that they had to send the right message if they wanted to maximise the chance of being left alone to organise their own affairs. Their aim has been to keep away the heavy hand of the polity while securing the support of external interest groups. Their wording and emphasis have been closer to a redefinitionof the academic ethos, designed to requalify the all-pervasive debates on “enterprise” and “entrepreneurship” from within academia31. Universities and colleges have interpreted and implemented certain political objectives in ways, which had not always been forecast. The profession, sometimes in co-operation with the student constituency, has been able to introduce change compatible with the general interest of the academic community. In the same vein, there have been signs that raise doubts about the re-labelling of certain courses and programmes. Changes sometimes come across more as a re-branding or a repackaging of unpopular subjects under titles which are more attractive to popular taste than as a genuine reorganisation of knowledge32.

  • 33  See M. Bett, Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, London, The Stationery Off (...)
  • 34  See Ronald Barnett (ed), Academic Community: Discourse or Discord?,Higher Education Policy Series (...)

24This picture would not be complete if we failed to mention that the chances to pursue professional interests in terms of pay, sabbatical leave, research time and facilities have been eroded, with academics now earning comparatively less than civil servants and secondary school teachers, a situation which the Association of University Teachers (AUT) has continually brought up in its bargaining with the central authorities33. The demand for an independent review body to address the problem has been repeatedly dismissed by governments. This has become a major source of discontent for the profession, which feels that increased productivity, with the rise in student numbers, has been achieved without any financial rewards accruing to those who have been directly responsible for it. The abolition of tenure, combined with a politically-enforced unification of the higher education sector and the competitive allocation of decreasing funding, have been particularly divisive for the profession34. New management practices, redundancies, short-term contracts with waiver clauses and performance-related pay have not been directly imposed by Government, but the polity has clearly been directly responsible for creating a suitable environment for them to happen. As in most other areas, trade-unions and professional associations have been shunted to one side. Dissent could only be expressed bysymbolic but counter-productive actions such as Oxford University’s refusal to grant an honorary degree to Margaret Thatcher or the recent broader threat not to mark final examination papers. In the new professional environment thus created, the divisions in working practices and conditions between subject areas, institutions, professional grades and even between sexes have been exacerbated.

  • 35  The Russell Group of universities is an informal self-selected representative body from research-l (...)

25The result has been that, in elaborating their collective values, university teachers have become increasingly aware of the need to regain a degree of financial and academic autonomy in order to recover their capacity to achieve internally-defined goals. This evolution has been epitomised in the particularly lively debate concerning the rights and wrongs of tuition fees, the level at which they should be set and who should set them. Two seemingly irreconcilable views of the future of higher education have been at work. On the one hand, there are those who think that English (or British) universities—and in particular the leading ones—can rely on their social status, professional expertise and foundation income to “go it alone” (e.g. the Russell Group35). Advocating the diversity of roles and functions within the British higher education system, they believe that high-status higher education institutions can become essentially free-standing institutions with government funding representing only part of their income. They reckon that they can or, more importantly, ought to be able to compete on the international scene, in particular with the American Ivy League and for this purpose, real market competition should be fully implemented to allow them to sell their services to whoever is prepared to pay the price, whether it be overseas students, international companies or home students. Universities should be allowed to charge whatever sum the market will bear for their products an—its direct corollary—to pay whatever salaries would be needed to attract high-flying academics. Advocates of this option have been careful enough to dress up their ideas in a socially acceptable way by presenting it as a wise move for government (less expenditure), for the profession (more freedom) and for students (genuine consumer choice). They argue that partial privatisation would free funds for other more needy institutions whose business prospects are less rosy. To advance their case, they have also questioned the assumption that higher education should be paid for by public resources, on the grounds that an increasing number of students in higher education have no clear economic or other material value for the national economy.

26On the other hand, central government, with the support and hopes of many in the new universities who, in the context of fees set freely by institutions, would be likely to see the glittering prizes of their newly-conquered status fade away, also declares that it wishes to encourage diversity but within the limits of a coherent state system. The preservation of this coherence seems likely to necessitate a differentiation in the setting of fee-levels between institutions and a widening of differences in academic pay and conditions, the extent of which will depend on the reactions of students (and their parents) and of employers. However, given the widening differences in disposable income, the most likely scenario would seem to be the setting-up of a two-tier system at higher level with elite universities being allowed to manage their own affairs and effectively becoming fully-fledged private institutions competing at an international level and lower-status institutions forming the public sector of higher education, very similar to the current form of the university sector, with recruitment and activities more regional in their scope.

Conclusion

  • 36  See Ian McNay, The Impact of the 1992 Research Assessment Exercise on Individual and Institutional (...)

27With the gradual reinforcement of evaluative procedures and their linking to external rewards and sanctions, central government has reinforced its power to exert external pressure in order to generate changes in higher education while driving costs down. The results of this policy have been double-edged. In their research activities, institutions have been pulled in two directions: the policy has led to greater specialisation in order to secure top-ratings in areas of excellence but, to a certain extent, it has also prevented too great a degree of institutional specialisation. In teaching programmes, specialisation and differentiation have been used by institutions to build niches in the market for students. At the same time, higher education institutions have been accused of “dumbing down” degrees so that central government and the institutions have felt the need to send more positive messages to external interest groups by setting up evaluation procedures for teaching activities. This has led to a certain form of unification and systematisation with the Quality Assurance Agency trying to safeguard standards and comparability in terms of intellectual attributes rather than subject content. Moreover, as suggested by Ronald Barnett, the presence of external assessors is more likely to generate an attitude of compliance than one of risk-taking. Interdisciplinary research areas, in particular, have fitted uneasily into the process36.

  • 37  See Andrew Gamble, The Free Economy and the Strong State, London, Macmillan, 1988, D. Kananagh and (...)
  • 38  The 94 Group (so-called because it was founded in 1994) consists of internationally-regognised Bri (...)

28Since the 1980s, the various elites involved in higher educational matters in England have ceased to share common interests. Central government has used its legal and financial powers to bring the academic profession both to rationalise and expand its activities. In order to justify its intervention, the polity has used a strong set of values which have been discussed at length as “New Right” ideology37, although it remains an open question what a Labour government might have done in such circumstances. The academic profession has tried to counteract the actions of the polity by shadowing government initiatives but the overall evolution has represented a steady deterioration in its level of autonomy. This has been all the more the case as the period under discussion has been divisive for the profession, in particular in the area of research funding, as is apparent in the formation of pressure groups with differing agendas (e.g. the Russell Group, the 94 Groupand the Coalition of Modern Universities38). The ability to pursue specific professional interests has been reduced accordingly but the introduction of tuition fees may be considered to be a turning point in this downward spiral for the profession.

  • 39  See Geoffrey Walford, Restructuring Universities: Politics and Power in the Management of Change, (...)
  • 40  See Gareth Williams, “The Many Faces of Privatisation”, Higher Education Management, vol. 8, n° 3, (...)

29As state grants have covered fewer overheads, universities have shown themselves increasingly prepared to tap into such forms of income as donations from former students or other benefactors through fund raising campaigns. The universities have been less in a position to pick and choose among offers from rival interest groups. Corporate interests have increased their presence and influence on the governing bodies of many institutions39. Confronted with a relentless decrease in public funding, even the most richly endowed institutions have had to lend an increasingly sympathetic ear to the specific requirements of the industrial sphere. This is not to say that these elite institutions had not entertained any sort of relations with the corporate world before the introduction of reforms but that the pre-1980s situation had placed them in such a position that they could be rather more particular about their choice of industrial partners. As a result, industry has increasingly paid the piper and so called the tune. Links with industry have thus started to obstruct academic freedom, with limits being placed on the right to publish research outcomes and with serious reductions in curricular autonomy across the board. Arguably, however, this latest evolution has not been solely the result of industry-imposed standards as the result of government-imposed standards in relation to industry but also of standards set by government in relation to students and parents. The belief among political elites that the development of science and technology would be the way out of economic decline has led government to look favourably on industry and commerce investing in joint research projects with higher education. This response to industrial demand has been paralleled by a response to social demand. Expansion in higher education has clearly involved catering for the needs of sections of the population which previously did not have access to higher education, namely women, mature students and those categorised under the generic term of ethnic minorities. This period of complex and interrelated changes ends with the unresolved question of arguments between the state, business and students as to who is going to pay the price of the expansion of university sector, all the more as it is not a compulsory part of the educational system40.

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Notes

1  Martin Trow, Managerialism and the Academic Profession: Quality and Control, Stockholm, Council for Studies of Higher Education, 1993.

2  Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Report of the Steering Group on University Efficiency, Jarrat Report, London, CVCP, 1985.

3  Tom Owen,“The University Grants Committee”, Oxford Review of Education, vol. 6, n° 6, 1980, 255-278.

4  P. Reynolds, “Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer’s Paper”, Universities Quarterly, vol. 38, n° 2, 1984, 95.

5  See Denis Lawton, The Tory Mind on Education, 1979-1994, London, Falmer, 1994.

6 Education Reform Act, London, HMSO, 1988, Clause 134, 6.

7  This doubled the number of universities almost overnight.

8  Bahram Bekhrania, “RAE goes forth and multiplies”, Times Higher Education Supplement, 14 November 1997, 12.

9  See Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Realising our Potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology, Cmd 2250, London, HMSO, 1993.

10  See Eric Robinson, The New Polytechnics: The People’s Universities, Victoria, Penguin Books (Australia), 1968.

11  See David Watson, Managing the Modular Course: Perspectives from Oxford Polytechnic, Buckingham, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, 1989.

12  See Harold Silver, A Higher Education: The Council for National Academic Awards and British Higher Education, 1964-1989, London, Falmer, 1990.

13  See Report of the Working Group on Good Management Practice, London, National Advisory Board for Public Sector Higher Education, 1987.

14  See Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Academic Standards in Universities, London, CVCP, 1986.

15  The HEQC was a company limited by guarantee owned by the CVCP, the Conference of Scottish Centrally Funded Colleges and the Standing Conference of Principals.

16  See Ronald Barnett, “The Evaluation of the Higher Education System in the United Kingdom”, in Robert Cowen, The Evaluation of Higher Education Systems, World Yearbook, of Education 1996.

17  See Department of Education and Science, Higher Education: A New Framework, Cmd 1541, London, HMSO, 1991.

18  See Frantz Van Vught, “Dangerous Curves: An International Analysis of Participation Growth and Higher Education Policy in Seven Countries”, Industry and Higher Education, vol. 9, n° 4, 1995, 198-204.

19  Margaret Archer, Social Origins of Educational Systems, London, Sage, 1979, 511. See also E. P. Thomson, Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the University, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970.

20  See David Warner and David Palfreyman (eds), Higher Education Management: The Key Elements, Buckingham, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, 1996.

21  See Susan Weil (ed), Introducing Change from the Top in Universities and Colleges, London, Kogan Page, 1994.

22  See Gareth Williams, Changing Patterns of Finance in Higher Education, Buckingham, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, 1992.

23  See Brian Salter and Ted Tapper, Education, Politics and the State: The Theory and Practice of Educational Change, London, Grant McIntyre, 1981.

24  See Lord Crowther-Hunt, “Policy Making and Accountability in Higher Education”, in Michael Shattock (ed), The Structure and Governance of Higher Education, Guildford, Surrey, Society for Research into Higher Education, 1983.  

25  See Martin Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985. See also Corelli Barnett, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, London, MacMillan, 1986.

26  See Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Development of a Strategy for Higher Education in the 1990s,London, CPCV, 1984.

27  See Enterprise in Higher Education, 1988-1989; 1989-1990, Sheffield, Training Agency, 1990.

28  See Roger Murphy, The Key Skills of Students Entering Higher Education: A Report of a Project Commissioned by the Department of Education and Employment, Nottingham, University of Nottingham School of Education, 1997.

29  Department for Education and Science, Higher Education Statistics for the United Kingdom, London, HMSO, 2002. David Greenaway and Michelle Haynes, Funding University to Meet National and International Challenges, Nottingham, University of Nottingham, 2000. Higher Education Funding Council for England, Widening Participation in Higher Education: Funding Decisions for 2001-2002 to 2003-2004, London, HEFCE, 2001.

30  See Anne Griffin and Ronald Barnett, The End of Knowledge in Higher Education, London, Cassell, 1997.

31  See John Stephenson and Susan Weil, Quality in Learning: A Capability Approach in Higher Education, London, Kogan Page, 1992.

32  According to Clive Booth, former Vice-Chancellor at Oxford Brookes University, speaking at Wolfson College, Oxford, in 1998-1999.

33  See M. Bett, Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, London, The Stationery Office, 1999.

34  See Ronald Barnett (ed), Academic Community: Discourse or Discord?,Higher Education Policy Series n° 20, London, Jessica Kingsley, 1994. See also Tom Schuller, “The Exploding Community? The University Idea and the Smashing of the Academic Atom”, Oxford Review of Education, vol. 16, n° 1, 1990, 314.

35  The Russell Group of universities is an informal self-selected representative body from research-led institutions (Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton, Warwick, Imperial College, King’s College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, University College London). Their meetings take place in the Russell Hotel in London.

36  See Ian McNay, The Impact of the 1992 Research Assessment Exercise on Individual and Institutional Behaviour in English Higher Education: Summary Report and Commentary, Chelmsford, Anglia Polytechnic University, 1997.

37  See Andrew Gamble, The Free Economy and the Strong State, London, Macmillan, 1988, D. Kananagh and A. Seldon, The Thatcher Effect, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989 and Robert Skidelsky, Thatcherism, London, Chatto and Windus, 1988.

38  The 94 Group (so-called because it was founded in 1994) consists of internationally-regognised British universities which claim to share common aims, standards and values: Bath, Durham, East Anglia, Essex, Exeter, Lancaster, Surrey, Sussex and York,along with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and Birkbeck College, Goldsmiths College and Royal Holloway College at the University of London. The Coalition of Modern Universities is a group formed by a number of British universities and colleges to discuss common concerns and present a joint approach on issues that are particularly relevant to them. The term “Modern Universities” describes those universities and other institutions of higher education that were incorporated in 1992.

39  See Geoffrey Walford, Restructuring Universities: Politics and Power in the Management of Change, London, Croom Helm, 1997.

40  See Gareth Williams, “The Many Faces of Privatisation”, Higher Education Management, vol. 8, n° 3, 1996.

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Cécile Deer, « Higher Education in England and Wales : Power struggles underlying reforms since the early Thatcher years », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°1 | 2004, 22-39.

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Cécile Deer, « Higher Education in England and Wales : Power struggles underlying reforms since the early Thatcher years », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°1 | 2004, mis en ligne le 18 novembre 2009, consulté le 24 juin 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/3014 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.3014

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Cécile Deer

Dr. (Oxford, Angleterre)
Cécile Deer is Research Fellow at the Department of Economics, Oxford University. Her main research interest lies in comparative educational policy. She has recently published a book entitled Higher Education in England and France since the 1980s (December 2002, Oxford, Symposium). She is currently writing a book on Education in Nineteenth Century India.

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