A university degree for housewives

When I give talks about the history of higher education, I find the greatest sense of disbelief from the audience comes from the description of how far we have come in terms of women’s participation.  That is not an excuse for the state of things as they currently are, but a spur to further action.

After women had won the right to take the same exams as men, two major questions remained unresolved; whether it was the right curriculum for them to take, and should they be educated together with men.  Aspects of the issues about co-education remain -but as an example, in its first systematic offering, University College London adopted a special timetable which offset the separate classes for men and women by half an hour so that they couldn’t mingle in the break (the arrangement soon ended and UCL can claim to be the first co-educational university in the UK).

The curriculum was more interesting.  The experience of extension lectures meant that the new civic university colleges realised that women were interested and capable across a broad range of subjects, there remained all sorts of issues about professional courses, but the direction of travel was set.  Except in London, where a group of benefactors worked with the Women’s Department of King’s College to develop a special course.

Household & Social Science

The history of King’s College’s provision for women is complex, involving several permutations moving from being a Ladies Department to a separate college.  The college was situated safely away from the men in Kensington.  At first it replicated the provision for men, but it developed a specialty in Household & Social Science.  The duplicated courses moved back to the Strand, leaving the special course behind.

The course developed to the extent that a University of London degree was created – the examinations being in the following areas:

Part 1

Organic & Physical Chemistry; General Biology; Economic Biology; Principles of Economics; Business Affairs (London 1921)

The examination regulations for Part 1 seem straightforward enough (although judging comparative standards over time just by looking at exam questions is a dubious practice).

Economic Biology June 15 10 to 1

1 Give an account of the habits and life-history of the itch-mite.

7 Write an essay on insects and disease

Principles of Economics June 13 10 to 1

1 Illustrate the importance of the study of Economics to the housekeeper.

2 How do you account for the fact that we are better off materially than our forefathers?

8 Account for the vital importance of the foreign exchange rates to the British working man.

However, it’s Part 2 that reveals the direction the course was taking:

Part 2

Applied Chemistry; Physiology & Biochemistry; General Hygiene; Bacteriology; Household Work; Special Household Work; Institutional Management (London 1921)

A century later this looks like a much more strange offering.  The curriculum took a more practical direction and with it the assessment.  For Part 2, the examinations included the following:

Household Work June 16 10 to 1

1 Plan meals for a day in a middle class family for each of the seasons. Give the quantities required and compare the energy values. What principles would guide you in the choice of the food.

Practical Examination June 27 10 to 4

1 Prepare a day’s meal for a family consisting of father, mother, and two children (aged 8 and 10 years) using as little fuel as possible. Hand in a list of fresh ingredients required by 11am and calculate the price of each meal.

2 All utensils used are to be cleaned and left for inspection

Dora Marsden and the Freewoman

Dora Marsden came from a working-class background, worked as a pupil-tutor from 13 and gained her place at Owens College through a Queen’s Scholarship (where she met many of the early feminists) and she went back to teach after her degree. However, this was limiting. Hicks notes:

Along with a number of her Owens’ College alumni, Marsden felt the frustrations of educated women attempting to enter the workforce and political arena only to find that despite their equal qualifications, they were still generalized into a subordinate sex and labeled as inferior.

With a fellow teacher, chemistry graduate Rona Robinson, she picketed the opening of a new chemistry lab in Manchester and was arrested.   She also heckled Winston Churchill, having hidden herself in the Southport Empire for 15 hours to get the chance.  She left teaching to work with the WSPU, but clearly disagreed with them on many issues.  She then edited a series of journals, the first of which, The Freewoman, brings us back to the Household & Social Science course.

In the issues of The Freewoman, amongst the critiques of the WSPU and the Pankhursts, stands a robust assessment of the course at Kings, which they saw as a course for housewives:

The aims of those who frame such a retrograde scheme are in radical opposition of those of the women who are desiring the freedom and development of women. They aim at perpetuating woman’s inferiority by perfecting her in the role which puts the greatest difficulties in the way of her development.  (‘Educationalist’ Freewoman 1911: 17)

The identity of ‘Educationalist’ is not given, but it is clear that she is working on the course. The Freewoman returned to the topic in 1912, and from this we learn that it is Rona Robinson, Marsden’s  friend from Manchester, who had been working at the College while in receipt of a scholarship (which she has now resigned).


She wrote:

I protest that a more impudent piece of charlatanry has never been perpetuated before in the history of education (Robinson Freewoman 1912: 256)

Over a hundred years later, it is hard to disagree that Marsden and Robinson had a point. The course went onto gain BSc status from the University of London and ran for many years. The College developed other provision, was renamed Queen Elizabeth College  and re-merged with King’s College in 1985.

As I said at the outset, looking back is not to excuse how far we still have to go, but it does help to show how much is possible.


Hicks, R, 1990, Gender of the Self – Dora Marsden and the Freewoman… Oxford University MLitt Thesis

London, University of, 1921, Faculty of Science (Household & Social Science) Examination papers, London

Dearing passing into history

The Dearing Report into Higher Education is now older than new students in our universities.  Established in May 1996, the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education reported in 1997.  A comprehensive report, it covered most aspects of higher education and dealt with all parts of the UK.  It was generally well received, although Martin Trow laid into it:

The Report does not show an intimate knowledge of the institutions about which it advises; it separates its discussions of finance from its comments on teaching and learning; it ignores the wide diversity of higher education institutions, subjects, and students in making its sweeping recommendations, and it does not recognise the limits of its own knowledge, nor make provision for the continuing improvement of the knowledge and understanding on which future policies for British higher education might be based. (Trow 1998)

9 years ago, it was clear that the Dearing settlement was holding well.  At the 10 year anniversary of the report in 2007, in articles, books and at a conference at The Institute of Education, it was clear that the bulk of the recommendations had been implemented. Some of which had taken a while (the Institute for Learning & Teaching in HE – which had morphed into the HEA) and some of which (the fees and loans scheme) were rejected in 1997 but then later formed the basis of the 2004 scheme.  But, 19 years after Dearing has its influence slipped away?  This is might be why…

The Compact

The Dearing committee was given the job of looking at higher education over the next 20 years, and it was clear that a key part of the immediate issue was funding.   What the report tried to do was shape the change they were suggesting (that students pay fees) as a compact between the interested parties.  They explained:

Throughout our report we have emphasised our belief that the long term wellbeing of higher education rests on establishing a new compact between society, as represented by the Government, students and their families, employers and providing institutions. Each member of the compact needs to play their part and we have shown in the preceding chapters ways in which this can be done. The compact implies that each of the stakeholders both contributes to, and receives benefits from, higher education.
Dearing Report, Paragraph 18.2

The compact was used to explain the fees settlement, but it also shaped the new accountability that the sector would have towards quality assurance or staff.  It is clear that this is not how undergraduate education is now thought of.  It is a personal investment.  Take the recent debate about the ending of grants,  contributions from Conservative MPs included the following:

It is the most incredible investment an individual can make for themselves, including in the form of a loan, which can, of course, be paid back. (Huw Merriman)

and using that investment argument means that others shouldn’t contribute:

The needs of people from my constituency … need to be balanced with the needs of those who go to university. We must face the fact that university graduates benefit from such an investment—to the tune of £170,000 for men over a lifetime and of £250,000 for women over a lifetime. (Seema Kennedy)

Funds for nursing students or postgraduates are also being converted into loans: the majority of the responsibility now lies with only one stakeholder confirmed as the main beneficiary: the student.

Academic Infrastructure

Arguably the most important contribution of Dearing was to settle the issues left over from the removal of the binary line in 1992 and settled a range of institutions which broadly have continued until today.  The Browne Review tried to re-balance that infrastructure – but it’s glib aligning of very different sector bodies found no takers.

The higher education system is currently overseen by four bodies: HEFCE, QAA, OFFA and the OIA These will be replaced by a single Higher Education (HE) Council. It will take a more targeted approach to regulation, with greater autonomy for institutions.

Even if the 2015 Green Paper’s Office for Students is the offspring of Browne, the careful balancing of sector bodies and regulators  from Dearing seems to have won out again. There are things that the sector can do to itself, subject benchmarks for example, that a government regulator could not.  We have seen how the desired diktats of the Home Office with Prevent have melded into guidance from HEFCE.

Can the TEF replace sector regulation? Comparisons with TQA/Subject Review are made (as are comparisons with Ofsted) but at the heart of those systems was the recognition that universities were trying to do different things, and therefore they were tested against their own stated aims.  The achievement of Dearing was an academic infrastructure, binding institutions to a qualifications framework with programme specifications, but who in the sector would own that without the QAA?

Recommendations of their time

Of course, some things have dated rather charmingly.  Take recommendation 46, which looked forward to desktop computer access and mandatory portable computing:

We recommend that by 2000/01 higher education institutions should ensure that all students have open access to a Networked Desktop Computer, and expect that by 2005/06 all students will be required to have access to their own portable computer.

20 years on

The 1997  Dearing report talked about a 20 year vision.  With some exceptions, most of it has lasted that full 20 years.  Only now, in 2016, can we see a different future ahead of us. The Dearing Committee represents an older way of doing higher education policy; prepared to lead, to take chances, but also embedded in the wider experience of the sector.   The problems that Martin Trow saw in Dearing are all vastly amplified in the Green Paper which poses more questions than provides answers.

Maybe the answer lies in recommendation 88 – one of those that was never implemented, but might be quite wise in retrospect:

We recommend to the Government that, in five years’ time and subsequently every ten years, it constitutes a UK-wide independent advisory committee with the task of assessing the state of higher education; advising the Government on its financing and on ways in which, in future years, it can best respond to national needs; on any action that may be needed to safeguard the character and autonomy of institutions; and, in particular, on any changes required in the level of student support and contributions from graduates in employment. Dearing Report



For the last 15 years I have been running workshops on university history for the Association of University Administrators (AUA) annual conference. I will be doing so again in March (last chance: book now before 6 March).  All that time I’ve structured the session around the Dearing Report, the way that it saw the mission of higher education and its values.  This year, however, that only makes sense looking backwards…


The website for the Report is still up – pretty much as I remember in 19 years ago: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/

Your university will also have a copy of the report.  In 1997 we went to London for a launch conference where we collected our institutional copy and brought it back on the train…