British universities past, present and future: convergence and divergence

By Robert Anderson -

Among the twenty universities in the research-intensive Russell Group, only one (Warwick) is less than 100 years old ( Clearly history still matters. British universities were of diverse origins and types, formed by layers of historical development, but converged over time towards a single model.[1] Uniformity was at its height in the ‘Robbins era’ from the 1960s to the 1980s, but since then tensions have grown within an ostensibly unified system. Should this fragmentation be deplored, or seen as a natural development to be welcomed and managed? And what are the likely effects on it of a market based around student demand? Should institutions which are central to the life and culture of the nation be shaped purely by competitive forces, or guided along rational paths by the state?

The modern university system was shaped in the 19th century. University models varied, partly geographically, partly functionally. Oxford and Cambridge, themselves radically reformed by the Victorian state, were national universities which formed a governing elite through liberal education. The redbrick universities which developed from the 1870s served local civic communities, and welcomed scientific and vocational subjects. The Scottish universities combined general education with a strong emphasis on professional training. The various colleges which made up the University of London had both civic and national roles, and by the early 20th century had joined Oxbridge to form an academic ‘golden triangle’.

Centralisation of academic culture was one of the forces driving convergence. The size and prestige of Oxford and Cambridge made them powerful models. Redbrick universities did not initially have degree powers, and London external degrees provided uniform curricula and standards. From 1889 the state gave annual grants to the new universities in England and Wales (as was already the case in Scotland), and to qualify for these, and for the royal charters which eventually gave degree rights, common standards had to be observed. By 1914, all universities except Oxford and Cambridge relied on the state for up to a third of their funding, and this incipient national system was consolidated by the creation of the University Grants Committee (UGC) in 1919. The UGC distributed state grants while respecting university autonomy, and in the 1920s and 1930s was a conservative force. Traditional conceptions of the university, stressing teaching as much as research, were maintained, and the few new foundations of this period had to wait many years for charters.

In 1939 there were 50,000 students in Britain, representing less than two percent of the age group. But expansion began once the war was over, and the UGC became more active. Two key developments in fact preceded the Robbins report of 1963 – the foundation of nine new campus-based universities, of which the first, Sussex, opened in 1961; and the decision in 1962 that the state would pay the fees of all students and give them maintenance grants to study wherever they wished. A jungle of grants and scholarships was swept away. These policies effectively nationalised universities and encouraged them to abandon their local roots. The older civic universities, and even the Scottish ones, now began to build halls of residence, and  living in a community was seen as part of the university experience. More significantly, universal entitlement to state funding brought the universities into line with the principles of social justice embodied in the post-war settlement. University education was seen as a public good accessible to all citizens on equal terms. In practice, this civic right was conditioned by many cultural and social factors, not least the exceptional inequalities in British secondary schooling. But meritocracy now extended to Oxbridge, and for forty years needs-blind admission was a reality throughout higher education.


Also in the 1960s, several former ‘colleges of advanced technology’ were given university status. The Robbins report envisaged that this promotion of local colleges as they matured would continue, but in 1965 the adoption of the ‘binary’ policy blocked this by diverting expansion into a ‘public sector’ based on thirty or so polytechnics; no new universities were founded between 1969 and 1992.

Both Robbins and the universal fees policy assumed continuance of selective secondary education, which restricted the numbers qualifying for university entrance and initiated students into academic values. At this time, state grammar schools and independent schools could compete on fairly equal terms. Robbins was about extending and opening up elite university education on meritocratic principles rather than mass higher education, and insisted that expansion should not compromise the quality of the university experience. Since the model, inspired ultimately by Oxbridge, was a residential one with low staff-student ratios, this was an expensive recipe for growth.

In the Robbins era uniformity was at its height. For thirty years, the binary system sheltered universities from wider social pressures, allowing many elite characteristics to be preserved. Research and postgraduate study became more important, giving British universities a high international reputation. They achieved a broad equilibrium between teaching and research, between elite formation and democratic selection, between state funding and university autonomy. But elite assumptions became less plausible as the age participation ratio rose from about 4 per cent in 1962 to 13 per cent – 300,000 students – by 1980.[2]

The public sector also saw convergence as specialist art colleges and colleges of education were merged into polytechnics. But there were tensions within the sector. Some of its leaders proclaimed a ‘polytechnic philosophy’ celebrating the distinctiveness of these ‘people’s universities’, devoted to teaching rather than research, vocational and practical in their curricula, and at the service of local communities. Yet ‘academic drift’ brought polytechnics closer to universities, and they were removed from local government control in 1988, blurring the binary frontier.

Its abolition in 1992 might seem to mark further convergence, as old and new universities were integrated. But in fact hierarchies of prestige and quality survived, as the proliferation of ‘mission groups’ testifies.[3] Differences were widened by an explosion of student demand, driven by underlying social pressures and unanticipated by governments, with numbers more than doubling since 1992 from one to over two million ( They include far more adult and part-time students, better served by the community traditions of the new universities than by the older model. The political dilemma has been how to reduce per capita expenditure while safeguarding the more prestigious and internationally reputed universities.[4] One answer was to use the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to direct funding selectively. Another was variable fees, which were not only politically controversial, but met resistance from a collective university culture hostile to economic competition.

The effects of the RAE overlap with those of  globalisation: some universities aim (not always realistically) to compete at ‘world class’ level  and appear in research-based international league tables, while others stress their local status and teaching mission. Yet another issue is the devolution of university policy to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments. As these continue to resist the English full-fee policy, and to consider their universities as national institutions funded primarily by the state, this divergence is likely to increase.

Advantages already cluster around one group of universities, which combine social prestige, competitive recruitment, access to desirable careers, international reputation, and success in research. The danger is that these universities will become more socially exclusive, as the natural effect of free markets in education is to reproduce existing inequalities of wealth and privilege ( Social mobility is an issue governments cannot ignore, and not the only one: universities are complex institutions fundamental to cultural life, economic prosperity, social cohesion and national identity. Mass higher education inevitably brings institutional diversity, but it needs great faith in markets to believe that student demand alone will produce a rational pattern of functions. The more likely outcome is a pseudo-market manipulated haphazardly from above, which is not obviously preferable to the more coherent university policies pursued in the past, or to the sort of articulated structure found in public systems like that of California. To have a chance of understanding, let alone shaping the future of higher education, we cannot ignore the weight of the past.


Robert Anderson is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Edinburgh. He has written extensively on the history of universities.

[1] R. Anderson, British Universities Past and Present (London, Continuum, 2006).

[2] W. A. C. Stewart, Higher Education in Postwar Britain (Basingstoke, Macmillan), 268, 278.

[3] W. Humes, ‘Tribalism and competitive branding in (Scottish) higher education’, Scottish Educational Review, 42 (2010), 3-18.

[4] K. Mayhew, C. Deer & M. Dua, ‘The move to mass higher education in the UK: many questions and some answers’, Oxford Review of Education, 30 (2004), 65-82.




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