Returning to a theme, the Mail on Sunday published a piece about falling standards (normal stuff – if numbers of successful students are going up, standards must be falling). It did, however, link the data to HEFCE’s plans for quality assurance, noting
HEFCE insiders said it would expect to see more ‘robust judgments’ about standards after criticism that some former polytechnics, where students can gain places with E grades at A-level, are awarding as many firsts and 2:1s as Oxford or Cambridge.
This is normal More Means Worse fare – we’re not told which universities are awarding the same proportion of firsts and upper seconds as Oxford or Cambridge. But note the clear insinuation about ‘some former polytechnics’. Clearly someone has failed to get over the implementation of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act; whereby the Privy Council were given the power to allow the use of the word ‘University’ in the title of an educational institution. The first beneficiaries of this new power were a group of institutions that had been designated as polytechnics or (as in Scotland) central institutions. The name ‘polytechnic’ had been given a protected status, but it had been used for over 100 years before these institutions were designated.
We have already passed the point when new students entering universities had not been born when the ‘former polytechnics’ became universities (2010). By now over 90% of all undergraduates have been born after 1992. We now have cohorts of graduates all born after the last polytechnic became a university. Why are some people still hung up on the former status of some universities from 24 years ago?
Perhaps it is because the designated polytechnics were an attempt to halt ‘academic drift’? This was the process observed by Tyrrell Burgess that locally-based colleges went onto to become nationally-focused universities. When Tony Crosland announced the concept of the polytechnics in 1965 there were three waves of ‘new universities’ at hand: the old civic colleges who had recently got charters (some such as Hull and Leicester only in the mid-50s); new universities given charters at the outset (the likes of Sussex and Essex) and the former Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) which were just sorting out their new charters after Robbins had recommended they become technological universities (Aston, Bath etc). Academic drift was halted – only two charters were given to very different new starts (Buckingham and Open) – there were no more promotions.
Perhaps it was the suddenness of the move? Although the CDP had been pressing for 20 years, the ending of the binary divide came quickly. The move came soon after John Major became Prime Minister – perhaps it really was a scheme to look for a cheap policy move to emphasise his ‘classless society’ notions (as rumours suggested).
Perhaps it’s because the polytechnics/new universities did the ‘heavy-lifting’ on access? Although the Open University had an open access policy, in general the polytechnics had lower entry requirements and they were more open to expanding numbers (at lower costs). Of course, there’s no necessary link between entry standards and the standard of the qualification – just because someone wouldn’t have met the entry requirements for Oxford, does not mean their first class degree isn’t as good.
Perhaps it’s because Howard Newby was right? Newby observed, in the context of discussions about possible ways of funding differentiated by mission in 2003, that:
We are actually trying to protect the strengths that diversity brings to our higher education system. I think the English – and I do mean the English – do have a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy, and I am not sure what we can do about that to be quite honest.
Eventually the ‘former polytechnic’ tag must go, surely? Many of them share the same roots as the CATs, but they aren’t labeled as such. Among the ‘former CATs’ are two (City and Surrey) who had even been called ‘polytechnics’ before (although not in the designated sense).
Finally, it is worth noting that in the long history of this group of institutions, they have all now been universities for longer than the time that they were designated as polytechnics.