There are few earthly things more splendid than a university: Masefield

Graduation ceremony speeches are particular things.  There are the corporate welcomes, with a flavour of the successes of the university, perhaps a heartfelt vote of thanks from a student and in some ceremonies a citation for an honorary degree.  Over these the university has some control and perhaps these aren’t that original in form.  More ‘fun’ is a response from the honoured guest; they bring their own particular style to this.

Often these are insightful, powerful speeches.  Often providing good advice for the graduates, calls to action or wistful memorials.  Sadly, few endure.  One has, however, the response from John Masefield to his award of DLitt at the ceremony which installed the Earl of Harewood as chancellor of the University of Sheffield.  You may have heard parts of it in graduation speeches or read it in the Chairman’s foreword in the Dearing Report.

There are few earthly things more splendid than a university.  In these days of broken frontiers and collapsing values, when every future looks somewhat grim and the dams are down and the floods are making misery, when every ancient foothold has become something of a quagmire, wherever a university stands, it stands and shines; wherever it exists, the free minds of men, urged on to full and fair enquiry, may still bring wisdom into human affairs.

There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university.  It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning, and will exact standards in these things.

They give to the young in their impressionable years, the bond of a lofty purpose shared, of a great corporate life whose links will not be loosed until they die.

They give young people that close companionship for which youth longs, and that chance of the endless discussion of the themes which are endless, without which youth would seem a waste of time.

There are few things more enduring than a university. Religions may split into sect or heresy; dynasties may perish or be supplanted, but for century after century the university will continue, and the stream of life will pass through it, and the thinker and the seeker will be bound together in the undying cause of bringing thought into the world.  To be a member of these great societies must ever be a glad distinction.

John Masefield, Poet Laureate, at the installation of the 6th Earl of Harewood as Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, 25th June 1946.

Those collapsed values were all too evident in 1946, but it is Masefield’s optimism for the purpose of the university that shines through, and speaks to us now.   Our future might  look somewhat grim too, but we should remember that universities will endure.


An Honorary Test Side

I like the institution of honorary degrees, and with more universities we now have a wider diversity of awards which are made.  Paul Greatrix has run a series of posts looking at this on Wonkhe – including one on sports stars, which I noted he’d excluded cricketers from.

However, with the recent award of Doctor of Sports degree to Chris Read, I reckon you can now get a pretty good English test team of honorary degree holders.









G A Gooch





Anglia Ruskin


A N Cook







I R Bell







D I Gower







I T Botham







P D Collingwood







C M W Read




Nottingham Trent


D Gough







S C J Broad







J P Agnew






P C R Tufnell






I’ve added Jonathan Agnew to this list, perhaps not the strongest possible member of a bowling attack, but a multiple honorary degree holder given his broadcasting career, having completed his hat-trick of Leicestershire universities with his third this summer.   Others in the list also have multiple honorary degrees.

Some sports careers are just the example that we want to set; in his response Chris Read explained how he set out to continually improve through his career.  In the terms of the NTU rubric, being a person distinguished in eminence by attainments for his contribution to professional cricket.

Differential Fees – still on the cards?

There are still rumblings about the prospect of differential fees, either to reflect costs or return on investment, all in the name of value for money.  Universities set different fees for non-regulated courses; I’ve noted before that there’s a substantial range for international students or postgraduates.

Undergraduate fees had been set by each university, but when the government regularised payment of fees by local authorities a simple set of maximum fee bands were set.  The standard fee was Band 1, courses with substantial practical activity were Band 2 and clinical courses were Band 3.  Courses were allocated to these bands by their UCAS subject code, although exceptional banding could be claimed (and the head of the institution had to sign to say that they’d applied the rules).  There were also rules for modular courses, set out by HEFCE as it tried to migrate institutions to a common funding model.  When HEFCE moved the fee stream into teaching grant these differentials were preserved in the price groups A-D, where A and B still receive additional teaching grant, now from OfS.

The prospect of differential fees on a three or four band basis seems unlikely.  These were funding tools, informing a block grant to a university which could then allocate funds itself.  University resource allocation models could add sophistication to the four bands, but subject to constant muttering about whether subjects which found themselves in A-D received a fair allocation.  There were some subjects that crossed these bands, which, in some years, resulted in a potential incentive to increase costs to obtain higher funds.  (I do wonder how the old band C subjects have done under the £9k fee system – are they still getting higher costs?)

So, how complicated would it be to bring back differential fees? There might be an answer already in action in the DfE in its apprenticeship strand.   There had been  funding caps, but from August 2018 DfE has allocated each of the 550 apprenticeship standards to one of 30 funding band maximums.  The maximum is not supposed to be the price, but only the maximum that can be claimed (it could be cheaper, and less money is claimed, or more expensive so the employer pays more).  Potentially the apprenticeship standards are as diverse as higher education courses, but they are a ‘standard’ with specified requirements and an end-point assessment.

The bands are fascinating.  Here, for example, is a selection of the standards where the fee band maximum is under £6000.

Sector Apprenticeship standard Level Band
HM Armed Forces HM Forces Serviceperson (Public Services) 2 2500
Public Service Business Fire Safety Advisor 3 2500
Adult care Lead Adult Care Worker 3 3000
Adult care Adult Care Worker 2 3000
Aviation Aviation Ground Specialist 3 3000
Healthcare Senior Healthcare Support Worker 3 3000
Housing Housing/Property Management


2 3000
Logistics and Supply Chain Supply Chain Operator 2 3000
Transport and Logistics Network Operations 2 3000
Public Service Custody and Detention Officer 3 3500
Agriculture, Env. & Animal Care Pest Control Technician 2 4000
Craft Spectacle Maker 3 4000
Customer service Customer Service Practitioner 2 4000
Customer service Customer Service Specialist 3 4000
Engineering and Manufacturing Textile Manufacturing Operative 2 4000
Administration Recruitment Consultant 3 5000
Agriculture, Env. & Animal Care Poultry Worker 2 5000
Aviation Aviation Operations Manager 4 5000
Food and Drink Food and Drink Process Operator 2 5000
Groundsmanship Sports Turf Operative 2 5000
Hospitality Senior Chef Production Cooking 3 5000
Law Probate Technician 4 5000
Leadership & Management Team Leader/Supervisor 3 5000
Logistics and Supply Chain Large Goods Vehicle (LGV) Driver 2 5000
Protective Services Safety Health and Environment Technician 3 5000
Public Service Teaching Assistant 3 5000
Transport and Logistics Cabin Crew 3 5000

This is differentiation in action.  The maximum for Cabin Crew is £2000 more than a Lead Adult Care Worker.   The groupings up to £9000 include abattoir workers, retail workers, golf greenkeepers, and maritime caterers.  The group from £9000 to £27,000 includes the degree apprenticeships and other programmes at levels 6 and 7, but also some high cost apprenticeships.  Here are some of them:

Sector Apprenticeship standard Level Band
Accounting Internal Audit Practitioner 4 9000
Butchery Butcher 2 9000
Catering and hospitality Baker 2 9000
Construction Painter and Decorator 2 9000
Hair and Beauty Hair Professional 2 9000
Hospitality Commis Chef 2 9000
Management Consultancy Junior Management Consultant 4 9000
Public Service Teacher 6 9000
Public Service Academic Professional 7 9000
Public Service Police Community Support Officer 4 9000
Construction Plasterer 3 10000
Construction Tunnelling Operative 2 12000
Digital Industries IT Technical Salesperson 3 12000
Media Junior Journalist 3 12000
Bespoke tailoring Bespoke Tailor and Cutter 5 15000
Bus, Coach and HGV Bus and Coach Engineering Technician 3 18000
Digital Industries Cyber Intrusion Analyst 4 18000
Building and Construction Architect (degree) 7 21000
Engineering and Manufacturing Organ Builder 3 24000
Boatbuilding Boatbuilder 3 27000
Creative and design Watchmaker 3 27000
Law Solicitor 7 27000
Leadership & Management Chartered Manager Degree


6 27000

Although Butcher and Baker have made it onto the list, there’s no separate category for candlestick maker yet.  Academic professionals will note the maximum for your apprenticeship is £9000 (there are full details on the Institute of Apprentices site).

Remember, these somewhat arbitrary bands are not the price of the course, although it’s the maximum that the levy can be used for, a provider and an employer can negotiate a higher price.  Even more importantly the apprentice cannot be charged.  As the government encourages the value for money argument for undergraduates, the prospect of a complex differentiation actually seems less likely.

Students might be grumpy about their fee being £9250, but what if the students in the next classroom are paying £7750 for something similar?  Someone must have decided there’s a rationale for the £3000 difference between a boatbuilder and an organ builder.  Is that just on cost, or on what the market will bear for the employers (surely that’s an aspect why adult care workers have such a low band).  But assumptions about employment pipelines might not work: assumptions that an apprentice watchmaker may stay in that job in a way that might not apply to a student on a BA in Horology.

It’s not obvious how differential fees can be applied fairly to a complex higher education system – the experience of bands for apprenticeship standards shows how complex this would be and they’re not even fees.

A new stage for the last federal university

Federal universities were once the major organising principle of British and Irish Higher Education.  At the turn of the 20th century we had four teaching universities (the Scottish universities), three collegiate examining universities (Cambridge, Durham and Oxford) and four federal examining universities (London, Royal University of Ireland, Victoria and Wales).  The examining universities were organised such that colleges undertook the teaching and the university examined the students.  The federal universities had emerged to ensure the standards at individual colleges, and was successfully growing a wide range of provision across England, Ireland and Wales.

In 1900 however, Birmingham got its own charter, not joining a proposed new federal university for the West.  That precipitated the demise of the Victoria University.  The Royal University split between the National University of Ireland and Queen’s Belfast.  Wales continued as a federation until a 2007 restructure as the main colleges became independent.  This leaves London.


London was the compromise following the founding of the two rivals: UCL and Kings.  Created as a government department to award degrees, it has gone through multiple phases of allowing internal and external students to its examinations.  These were hotly contested, not least through the ability of former students to participate in the debates through a powerful Convocation.

The past 40 years have seen a decline in the federal principle – colleges now award their own degrees, receive their own funding and operate as if they are universities in their own right.  Some shared services persist, but others, such as the University of London Union, have been disbanded as unnecessary (and often unhelpful) duplications. Imperial College (which hadn’t been keen when it was made to join the University) left in 2006 to become a separate university.  In 2016 City University gave up being a university in order to join the University of London – swapping its Chancellor for a Rector and its Vice-Chancellor for a President.

But this remains a curious situation.  UCL, which calls itself ‘London’s Global University’, isn’t strictly a university.  The University of London bill, up for second reading in the House of Commons, changes this again.  The bill is about the way the University of London makes statutes, changing its governance – but the primary purpose is in clause two, introducing a new measure.

“Member Institution” means an educational, academic or research institution
which is a constituent member of the University and has for the time
     (a) the status of a college under the statutes; or
     (b) the status of a university;

This will allow universities to be member institutions of the University of London.  The evidence supplied to the House of Lords notes

This legal situation stems from the University’s history and the description of the MIs [Member Institutions] as “Colleges” is now anomalous and unhelpful. The “College” descriptor also creates reputational difficulties for the MIs in the modern higher education landscape where private and alternative providers find it relatively easy to enter the market, as recognised universities.

Any MI could choose to leave the federation in order to achieve separate university status (as Imperial had to in 2006), but this would weaken the federal University and disadvantage the MI forced into that position. The MIs need to be able to obtain university title, but they wish to remain within the federation: Imperial did not have that choice.

The transcript of the Bill Committee highlights the confusion.  Richard Bull of Pinsent Masons explains that 12 of the members are currently applying to be universities but that although King’s College wants to be a university it doesn’t want to change it’s name, just as Imperial College hasn’t.  Maureen Bolan (Secretary of the University of London) explained:

It can call itself King’s College if it wants to, or just King’s, but it will have university status and it will be on a par with the new providers that are reaching levels of quality and student experience that are nothing in comparison to King’s

Then in relation to the LSE:

LSE, for example, quotes the situation that it often encounters, particularly overseas, where it is the London School of Economics: “So it’s a school?” “No it’s not, it’s a college”. “It’s a college?” “It’s not really, because it’s really a university”. For all practical purposes, it is a university. This sheds light on an anachronism.

Sometimes UCL and Kings are missed from lists of universities because they are not themselves universities.  It clearly it must irk some of the member institutions that new providers are universities and these internationally famous places are not.

There’s some fun to come – City will change back to being a university, but will it get its Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor back?  Perhaps this could allow other universities to federate – could branch campuses get university title and stay inside the group?  It’s unlikely that the second reading will repeat the major parliamentary discussions that happened in the past (except, perhaps, on the issue of representation on the board of trustees).  Meanwhile our last federal university will go on, with one fewer anachronism in its complex arrangements.

Update on Parliamentary ‘Progress’

The bill was introduced in the House of Lords, completing all its stages on 3 May 2018.  It had its first reading in the Commons on the same day, but its second reading has been postponed thereafter as an objection is made each time its scheduled for business. In the Commons a private bill can pass second reading if uncontested.  It’s not entirely clear from the order paper, and the cry of ‘object’ isn’t recorded as against a MP, but Sir Christopher Chope is mentioned (he of the famous philosophy of objecting to private members bills on ‘principle’).  So far it’s been bounced on 14, 21 and 28 June and 3, 10 and 17 July.  With Parliament in recess, it will appear again on 3 September.  

An Academic Registrar looks forwards

Transparent arrangements for tuition fees, credit arrangements for student transfers, anxiety about arrangements for quality assessment; these are part of the concerns of an Academic Registrar.  I have them all neatly recorded in my notebooks from summer term 1998.

I’ve had several looks at 1997/98, which was my first full academic year as an academic registrar.  In the first term we were still digesting the Dearing report, the second term focused on strategic challenges and the opportunities for lifelong learning, and I even had a look at that year’s AUA Conference.  Inevitably the third term of any academic year is dominated by assessment and I have notes recording the challenges of two-tier examination boards, which appear to have gone off very efficiently (helped by the simple trick of being able to bring up student records on a big screen).   There’s also the end-of-year cycle of committees, where Parkinson’s law requires that policy development has to expand to fill the time available for its completion so the agendas are all full.

Tuition Fees

The Government had brought in a £1000 fee, but had managed to skip much of the wisdom that Dearing had imparted into his proposed scheme and we were preparing for the practicalities of an up-front fee payable by students or their families.   The fees working work has to grapple with payment terms: invoices and instalments; credit cards or post-dated cheques; fines or loss of privileges for missed deadlines.


Local Vice-Chancellors had agreed to set up a group to look at credit rating and transfer.  Six HEIs had gathered to compare structures with a view to better facilitating movement.  It emerged that we had an interesting range of module sizes; 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 and 40.  Some HEIs had specific links with FECs, and it was reported that there would be strong support from FE for offering generic first year provision that could lead onto different HEIs.  However, the research intensive university in the group reported that while it did do transfers, these were limited to the Russell Group ‘because of academic reasons’ (says my notes).  The meeting ended with the prospect of some subject areas meeting to align curricula (naturally nothing came of that).


The Dearing report had tried to bring together the twin systems of quality assessment (run by the funding councils) and quality audit (run by HEQC).  There were a lot of meetings focused on what could be expected from the QAA.  Teaching quality assessment (TQA) was continuing, but complaints about the workload were growing stronger.  Hopes that an enhanced external examiner system could replace external assessment were fading as the notion of a register of examiners lost traction.  Attending a QAEN meeting in May, I noted the conflicts in the sector, including what should be done about ‘iffy’ standards – would QAA step in?  As with our current debate on subject TEF, there were issues about how we should define subjects, especially when these were constructs outside an HEI’s own structures.  Work would progress to build up the ‘academic infrastructure’ – which is all now coming down…

1998 vs 2018 

There doesn’t seem to be much difference twenty years apart.  The ebb and flow of the academic year is pretty similar; plagiarism hearings mingle with meetings about admissions targets.  There was an anxiety about the impact of changes to national systems, especially the unintended consequences for providers not in the golden triangle.  The thread through all of this is trying to find the best solution for the institution and its students in the face of shifting external pressures.

Meantime, I do wonder if I’m currently taking detailed enough notes to make sense of all of this in 2038 when, no doubt, some of the policy issues on fees, credit and quality will be settled.

The Vice-Chancellor appreciated

Was it always better in the past?  After a recent talk, the question was posed as to whether it is as bad now as its ever been for universities.  You’d had to say ‘no’.  And associated with that question is the question about the way universities are managed.

Even in the 20th Century you’d have plenty of examples – the universities were highly precarious until the 1960s, wars and depressions made unimaginable calls on their resilience.  But even when the Robbins settlement was made, there were still crises to be overcome.  In order to check that I re-read Ann Gold’s edited tribute to her brother: ‘Edward Boyle – His life by his friends’.  It confirmed that things were very grim in 1973-74 and again in 1981.  But they also highlighted the leadership that this Vice-Chancellor offered.

Stubley, Trevor, 1932-2010; Lord Edward Charles Gurney Boyle (1923-1981), CH, MA, LLD, DLitt, Hon, FRCS, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds (1970-1981)

Stubley, Trevor; Lord Edward Charles Gurney Boyle (1923-1981), CH, MA, LLD, DLitt, Hon, FRCS, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds (1970-1981); The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds

Edward Boyle was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds from 1970 to 1981.  He was the first politician to be appointed a Vice-Chancellor, having been MP for Handsworth from 1950 to 1970.  Chris Chataway thought that one the most important legacies from his ministerial career came at the moment when Robbins was published as ‘it was probably Edward who argued most strongly for university expansion’ (Chataway, 1991, p110).

Boyle came to the Vice-Chancellor’s job at Leeds having never worked in a university.  Although he’d done well at Oxford, he’d come there after working at Bletchley Park in the war, he surprised all by getting a third class degree.

FullSizeRender (29)

As well as being active in the Conservative Association, Boyle was an active debater, going on a seven month tour of the US with Tony Benn, who he succeeded as President of the Oxford Union.

Student politics were to the fore when he took of the role of Vice-Chancellor.  His predecessor had retired early after a difficult period of student unrest.  The book contains two substantive contributions on his work as Vice-Chancellor which are worth reading in their entirety as they recount a certain style of leadership.  First Challis writes:

Lord Boyle saw his role not as the Jarratt-style chief executive of the university but primarily as chairman of the University Senate. Senate’s own concept of its importance was reinforced by the emphasis which he placed upon it and by his belief in the importance of debate as a means of achieving consensus in key decisions of vital importance to the university or one its departments.  (Challis, 1991, p 126)

Well-briefed by his colleagues, Challis describes his readiness to debate and be challenged.  His political background helped when faced with a projected substantial deficit for 1974-75, calling all the staff together to explain his proposed approach.  Challis delights in telling the consequences of his decision not to replace his driver and therefore abandon the university car, requiring him to catch the bus.  Later in the book there’s a description of the ‘story or legend’ that ‘he once took his friend Edward Heath to the university by bus, police cars falling in in front and behind the bus in a solemn and unusual procession’ (Walsh, 1991, 140).

It’s clear that the scale of the university was different, Challis recounts him and the Deputy Registrar, James Walsh, journeying over a hundred miles to see the parents of a student who had failed his examinations (Challis, 1991, 133).  Sue Slipman explains how Boyle attempted to deal with an occupation in 1974, asking them politely to turn out a few lights (it was in the midst of power cuts in the city resulting from striking miners) to which the Maoists determined to turn them all on (Slipman, 1991, 136).

I would commend the book to those interested in higher education leadership.  In the second substantial chapter on Boyle as Vice-Chancellor William Walsh describes in more detail how he managed to have his view prevail.  It came from taking seriously the idea of the university as a self-governing community, immersing himself in the detail of the deliberative structures of the university and winning arguments.

When I was a student union officer at Leeds, a decade after Boyle had died in post, he was still held in great affection and his dictums were still cited as university policy; as Walsh notes

As a Vice-Chancellor he was able, out of the deepest conviction, to uphold the noblest purpose of the institution – teaching in the atmosphere of study and research, as he liked to put it – with a vivid sense of the intrinsic value of the individual. (Walsh, 1991, 143)

I don’t bring this portrait out to chide current vice-chancellors for not attending enough committees, or for not upholding its values, because I think they do both of those.  I bring it out because universities have had tough times in the past and come through them.  It’s also a helpful example of how someone can come from outside the sector into the VC’s role and be very successful at it.   It’s not necessary to have been an academic to run a university successfully, but you do need to be intelligent, engaging, and committed.



Challis, C, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor at Work’ in Gold op cit
Chataway, C, 1991, ‘At the Education Ministry: His Junior Minister’s View’ in Gold op cit
Gold, A (ed) 1991, Edward Boyle – His life by his friends, Basingstoke, Macmillan
Slipman, S, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor and Student Unrest’ in Gold op cit
Walsh, W, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor in Office’ in Gold op cit




Old Main

Campus masterplans now have to encompass the vast swathes of cities taken over by research universities. However, the majority of these sprawling sites started with either a single or a linked series of buildings. In the US these original buildings often go by the title ‘Old Main’, that single building that served as lecture rooms, laboratories and accommodation. I’m interested in how we’ve grown from these single buildings.

The 19th century saw an explosion of higher education, with teacher training colleges, art schools, technical colleges and university colleges being added to most towns and cities. The architectural choices reflect the conflicts played out in our older universities, with, in effect, a conversation bring played out between a number of architects. Although the new university colleges in London went for classical buildings (think UCL), the teacher training colleges went for low-key gothic.

The Government was not a major force in Higher Education in the 19th Century, but an exception was the commissioning of three colleges for Ireland. Here they set out clear requirements:

… a Great Hall for public and ceremonial purposes, a museum of natural history and geology, a library, a botanic garden, a chemical laboratory, a “cabinet” for philosophical and mechanical apparatus, six lecture theatres holding two hundred persons each, residences for the President and Vice-President, and a cloister for exercise in wet weather. (Blau, 1982, p13)

The Queens Colleges all went for gothic, with different architects borrowing to differing degrees from existing models (Queens Belfast got a copy of an Oxford tower).  Gothic was established as the main building style.  The majority of institutions started with temporary premises before moving into newly designed buildings.  This had the benefit of both accumulating the capital and gaining a clear sense of the requirements.  When Owens College had Alfred Waterhouse build a permanent base, they weren’t too far from the pattern laid out for the Queens Colleges.

The teacher training colleges were built on similar if smaller lines, but they included residential accommodation.   These buildings can be found at the heart of campuses in Chester, Chichester and Winchester.   Having got that first main building, a key choice fell to many growing institutions later on; to stay or to move.  The university colleges were often built in the city centre or amongst nearby housing, with very limited scope to expand.

sheffield 1921

University of Sheffield 1921 (Britain from Above)

Aerial photos show the contrast between the universities who stayed in their original sites and those that moved out to suburbs.  Contrast Sheffield with Birmingham – Joseph Chamberlain’s vision for transforming Mason’s College mean moving from its handsome building, part of the civic building complex, out to a newly designed campus.


University of Birmingham 1928 (Britain from Above)

The university colleges of Exeter and Nottingham had an extra incentive to move as their shared their buildings with other civic users: libraries and galleries.  Their parkland settings gave them room to expand.  For colleges that moved in the inter-war years, this proved a great opportunity – the demonstration of pride in education shown by the new buildings for Edge Hill is obvious.

Edge Hill

Edge Hill Training College 1935 (Britain from Above)

The challenge now is how to incorporate the old main building into a masterplan for a whole campus.  Often the buildings are, perhaps, rather eclipsed by newer bigger buildings.  Although the Great Hall might still have its place, the changing functions of the university mean some of the other uses of those first buildings have changed.   Perhaps we don’t value them as much as the US universities value their ‘Old Main’ buildings?

They are certainly a useful record of the development of our universities; their architecture records changing functions and approaches to education, and the style they were building shows an aspect of their changing nature of higher education – are we looking back to collegiate gothic, or to a form of classicism or now to an ultra-modernism.


Blau E 1982 Ruskinian Gothic – The Architecture of Dean & Woodward 1845-1861, Princeton, Princeton University Press

Pictures from