Between 1987 and 1992 I had a role in CNNA (Council for National Academic Awards) chairing that organisation’s committee for the humanities. CNAA had been set up in1965 to supervise and validate the courses and degrees awarded by polytechnics and other non-university institutions such as colleges of higher education. Universities on the other hand, having been chartered to award their own degrees, were subject to no such external body.

Only the system of external examining between universities guaranteed compatibility between the degrees awarded by different institutions. However in the 1990s this distinction between the university and non-university sectors came under increasing pressure. The larger polytechnics in particular began to object more and more loudly to their being under the thumb of the professional staff and university professors who largely composed CNAA. In the end the government’s ministry of education caved in, and in 1993 CNAA was abolished.

Major questions resulting from this abolition, however, remained unanswered. If universities and polys both had the right to award higher education degrees, what was the difference between them? No government was prepared to grasp this particular nettle. In the post-CNAA world, for an educational institution to become a university has had much more to do with organisational matters such as eligibility for HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council England) support, and student numbers, than any consideration of the quality and range of courses being taught. What this means is that in recent years it has been pretty easy to acquire university status.

As we all know, for many centuries England managed to flourish educationally with only two universities. In roughly the same period Scotland boasted five (King’s College and Marischal College did not unite as the University of Aberdeen until 1860.) A few more universities were founded in the 19th century, and in the early post-second world war period a group of so-called new universities were added: Keele, Sussex, East Anglia, Warwick, Lancaster, York, Essex, Kent, Stirling all emerged at this time. The scale of this expansion of the university sector was to prove as nothing compared with the explosion that followed in the post-CNAA period.

What is the position today? Across the UK there are now around 135 universities. Increasingly one senses that every medium-sized town feels it should contain a university. Universities with an initial ‘B’ include Bath, Bedfordshire, Birmingham, Brighton and Buckingham. Initial ‘W’ includes Warwick, West London, West of England, Westminster, Winchester, Wolverhampton, and Worcester.

How far there is any longer compatibility between the degrees offered by such a number of institutions is very much an open question. What is not is the fundamental change in the nature of our universities that has come into being in the post-CNAA period. Universities are now increasingly seen as commercial organisations – and most university administrations have happily colluded with the change. Students today are ‘customers’ and are to be treated as such. Value for money is what really counts. Scholarly teaching and research designed to encourage rational analysis and critical thinking in young minds are seen as relatively minor concerns.

Still more troubling for the university sector today is the boost to this commercialising direction of travel about to be imposed by the current UK government. The House of Commons has just passed a Higher Education and Research Bill that is being challenged by a number of amendments in the House of Lords. The bill is dangerously misguided. It calls – can you believe it? – for the setting up of yet more universities. Why? Because that will increase competition for the enrolment of students and, as we all know, ‘competition’ can only be a good thing.

Promoted by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, the bill’s summary factsheet is headed by the following statement: ‘The Higher Education and Research Bill will support the government’s mission to boost social mobility, life chances and opportunity for all, and enhance the competitiveness and productivity of our economy.’ So an education bill is more concerned with social and economic change than with education itself.

The tone of the bill that follows is frequently one of self-congratulation. Here is an example of the kind of language it deploys and the future it envisages: ‘New universities will drive more diversity and innovation, more choice for students, competitive pressure to drive up standards, and will mean that all students with the potential can access a high quality university place.’ (High quality grammar perhaps deserves more attention.)

We learn that lightly regulated new universities, easy to set up and run, will challenge more traditional institutions. For example, new universities will be encouraged to offer degrees that can be completed in two years. Given that England is one of the few countries that allow undergraduates to complete an honours degree in only three years, this fast-track proposal seems dangerously shortsighted and could damage the status worldwide of British higher education.

More troubling still is the bill’s implications in relation to the integrity and autonomy of all our universities. DAPs (degree-awarding powers) and the university title will be removed from the Privy Council and transferred to a new body called the OfS (Office for Students). Crucially membership of this body will ultimately be determined by ministers. We are assured the new body ‘will operate at arms length from ministers’, but there is no guarantee that this will always be the case. Thus the principle of academic freedom is potentially at risk. The new OfS will also have responsibility over the funding and hence direction of academic research – so here too academic freedom will become an issue.

‘The reforms’, we are told, ‘will also encourage providers to improve validation arrangements.’ There will be ‘rigorous tests for providers who want to enter the system and enable their students to receive funding; poor quality or financially unsustainable providers will not be allowed to enter.’ Thus the OfS, according to a Department of Education spokesman, will have the effect of ‘making universities rightly more accountable to their students so they get the best value for money.’

I suspect that the reference to money here gives the game away. The so-called ‘new high-quality providers’, who will find it easier ‘to start up and achieve degree-awarding powers, and subsequently secure university status’ will be driven above all by the profit motive. The question is do we really want to establish Trump universities in the UK? This is a bad bill. One can only hope that the government will pay attention to the amendments supported by the House of Lords, and thus make the best of a very bad job.

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