It’s universities, Jim, but not as we know them.

There’s a lot of flapping about in the press this week as higher education establishments announce fee levels for undergraduate courses – usually £9,000. This is generally followed by a statement that private organisations providing courses are also able to benefit from public money to fund their own programmes. This kerfuffle between public and private sector funding and status has been going on for a good five hundred years now, as this blog post briefly explains.

There’s a bit of background required first in order to understand the context. Historically there have been four phases of development of UK universities, what we might call ‘waves’. There was little development initially in  medieval and Tudor times, with about one exciting policy initiative each century (those were the days), but we saw a great deal of acceleration during the late nineteenth and 20th centuries with new institutions and courses popping up all over the place . Interestingly, universities appear to decrease in social status and prestige the more recently they were founded. (This phenomenon does not necessarily link to their quality or outcome of their academic courses, despite what you might think from general gossip on matters to do with higher education). So what are these waves?

I – The first ‘wave’ was the medieval university, with courses primarily aimed at preparing (male) students for the law, the church or medicine. These were the original vocational subjects, joined later in in the 19th century by novelties such as science and later still by modern foreign languages, engineering, social science subjects and the like. This group’s power base has been cleverly developed and consolidated over the years by the fact it feeds its graduates to the Government, the Civil Service and the leading professions, who in turn are expected to show support for measures designed to enhance the group’s privileged standing within the UK university sector. Until recently this included measures such as preferential funding for Oxford and Cambridge (in about 2010 this was worth up to around £7690 per home or EU student, as opposed to £3290 for each home or EU student at other UK universities), additional grants to support the maintenance of historic buildings (although currently under discussion and  subject to future cutbacks), and the making of personal endowments by alumni to support research, teaching and the development of capital assets.

II – The second wave of development took place in the 19th century and involved universities being established by prominent local industrialists and civic communities in order to service the needs of a growing industrial economy, and also to have closer connections with the cities of the north of England that were growing in size and importance during this period. The universities established during this phase were non-collegiate (that it, they were not made up of individual, autonomous colleges), and they did not require a religious test on entry unlike existing institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge (they required people to be Christian). More importantly, they started to admit women, with the University of London starting to award degrees to women in 1878, well ahead of Oxford (1920) and Cambridge (1948).

III – The third wave came about in the aftermath of the Robbins report (1963) in which it was argued that further development of the sector was necessary in order to allow further economic and industrial growth. This group of universities, known as ‘Plate Glass’ universities, was well known for its distinctive modernist architecture, and if you go to the website of my home institution, the University of East Anglia, you can feast your eyes on countless shots of award-winning buildings by leading architects surrounded by Henry Moore sculptures, trees, greenery and even a lake.

IV – The final phase of the development of the sector took place in 1992, as a result of John Major’s government permitting many former polytechnics and college of higher education to call themselves universities. These institutions have a very particular local mission in many cases, and recognised expertise in encouraging non-traditional students into higher education, but are considered to be less research intensive than older universities. That means they tend to rely more on teaching grants for their income than research grants.

So in this new era of high student fees, what has changed? We are starting to see commercial and independent organisations being increasingly involved from 2012-13, as these private providers are permitted to take unlimited numbers of students who are supported by taxpayer-funded fee loans. Whether it will represent a fifth wave remains to be seen. But one thing is sure, and that is that the nature of higher education is changing significantly, right under our noses, and there’s no guarantee of any advantage to the UK economy.


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