Higher Education after the War

The scale of the impact of the First World War is hard for us to imagine.  For a higher education perspective, I do recommend a look at both Tomás Irish ‘The University at War, 1914-25, Britain, France and the United States’ and John Taylor ‘The Impact of the First World War on British Universities : Emerging from the Shadows’. Both explore both what happened during but also the impact after the war.

Taylor notes ‘It is no exaggeration to argue that the First World War contributed significantly in the development of the British public university’ (2018, 336) and this is surely right.

Experience of the War

Although it was the vacation when war was declared, universities started to mobilise their plans to support the war effort.  Taylor has retrieved extensive minutes of the plans going into action.

But both Irish and Taylor foreground the destruction of the University library of Louvain on 25 August 2014 as the moment that brought the war into sharp relief for higher education, as Irish says, ‘the images of the burnt-out shell of the university library demonstrated that universities were on the front line; knowledge was literally at war’ (2015: pp15-16)


The next key impact was the mobilisation of men in particular to join the forces.  Lord Haldane had been instrumental in setting up Officer Training Corps (OTC) in universities and alumni and students were therefore already in a large potential reserve force.  Military Studies had been included in the curriculum, Manchester noting it was ‘adapted to the requirements of officers and others interested in military history’ (Manchester 1908 p179)   In the Autumn of 1914, it was the declining numbers of students which showed the growing number participating joining the services.

The modern universities were comparatively small, Leeds reported 1596 members of the university had been active service (Leeds 1920 p46).  By contrast, the University of Oxford Roll of Honour contains the names of 14,561 members of the university who served in military or naval services during the war.


The editors note that the university made other contributions, through science and the use of university facilities, but the sombre volume records the enormity of the contribution made by members of the university.  Here are list their university details, their service and honours and, regularly through the pages, the names of those who lost their lives picked out in heavy type.  Those scant details have now been taken forward by many of the colleges who offer insights into the lives of those commemorated on the memorials, with webpages and social media highlighting that personal contribution.

It was the wider contribution that Morrell stresses, contrasting the famous case of Harry Moseley, the discoverer of atomic numbers, who was shot at Gallipoli, an act that Sir Ernest Rutherford thought was a shining example of the misuse of scientific talent (Morrell 1997 p 6) with the wider scientific contributions to the war.

Rutherford himself undertook scientific work for the government, alluded to in this extract from the University of Manchester’s annual report:

As in the previous year, the ordinary research work of the Scientific Departments has been abandoned, and they have devoted themselves to special service, both advisory and experimental, in connection with the War… In his capacity as a member of the Board on Inventions and Research for the Admiralty, Professor Sir Ernest Rutherford has made special investigations in the Physics laboratory on problems connected with that Board. (Manchester, 1917)

Amongst his other projects, Rutherford had worked out the principles for sonar.   Some of the tasks undertaken were as fundamental, but less high profile: W H Perkin, Waynflette Professor of Chemistry ‘led small teams working on making acetone from alcohol, on a non-inflammable rubber coating for airships and on mustard gas’ (Morrell, 1997 p8).  When the king visited the University of Leeds he was shown the chemistry laboratories, but also the textiles and leather departments working to enhance soldiers’ equipment.

Broader Impact

Taylor provides a full account of the minutes of a deputation to the government held two weeks after the armistice (I’ve previously written a shorter version).  It’s an extraordinary account of how universities say what they had contributed, and the opportunities that lay ahead. The education minister, HAL Fisher (who’d been a vice-chancellor until 1916) was among the members of government responding, and he was formative in chartering the passage towards regular state funding through the UGC.

As well as the funding towards universities Fisher, looking back in 1939, also highlighted the importance of funding for ex-Service men to take up places at university.

Yet I believe that, when the history of our English education comes to be written, no single step will be found to have contributed more effectively to the spread of the university idea through England than the decision of the Government in 1918 to allot eight millions to enable ex-Service men to enjoy the privileges of university education… I am in a position to affirm that this large body of students was drawn almost exclusively from families to whom the notion of a university career for one of their numbers would have seemed up to that time foreign, if not fantastic.   (Fisher, 1940, p114)

The effects were quickly felt at the universities, at Leeds full time students jumped from 778 in 1918/19 to 1389 in 1920, 640 having received awards from the government ranging from fees to fees and a maintenance allowance of £200 per annum for married men (Leeds, 1920, p53)

The war demonstrated the usefulness of science, and Morrell notes that this now carried the argument at Oxford towards more facilities and more distinct courses.  It also had demonstrated the need for more systematic higher training, and UK universities co-ordinated together to shape a new degree, the PhD, to deliver that.

Irish notes that the war also developed a more internationalist approach for universities; staff and student mobility increased.  It also drove the formation of the National Union of Students,  predicated on the need for international cooperation after the war.

Students the world over have a common bond in the great, universal asset – Knowledge. Of all Internationals, Knowledge in its widest sense is the greatest. Every gain in the field of Knowledge is a profit to Humanity. Success is achieved not at the expense of our neighbour, but to his advantage. Hitherto the intellect and learning in our Universities has held itself too much aloof from the everyday life of the nation. It is time that the spirit of Team-work, which permeates every phase of our University life, was introduced into the affairs of Nations. If the students are co-operating to-day, surely there is hope for to-morrow! (Macadam, 1922)

We have remembered the loss of life at the centenary of the armistice, but it is worth remembering that the impact on the universities was deep and long-lasting.  They committed themselves to the service of the country, and the country started to fund them for it.


Craig E & Gibson M (eds), 1920, University of Oxford Roll of Service, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Fisher, H A L, 1940, An Unfinished Autobiography, London, Oxford University Press
Irish, T, 2015,  ‘The University at War, 1914-25, Britain, France and the United States’ London, Palgrave Macmillan
Macadam, I, 1922, Youth in the Universities, National Union of Students
Morrell, J, 1997, Science at Oxford 1914-1939, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Taylor, J, 2018, The Impact of the First World War on British Universities : Emerging from the Shadows, London, Palgrave
University of Leeds, 1920, Fifteenth Report 1918-19, Leeds,
University of Manchester, 1908, Calendar, Manchester, Manchester University Press
University of Manchester, 1917, Calendar, Manchester, Manchester University Press

Another hole in the regulatory bucket

The key regulatory tool for English higher education will be the OfS Register of providers. The conditions that have to be met and maintained will be the core means for keeping HE providers in line. If you’re not on the register you can’t be a university, award degrees, have your UK/EU students get loans or have your international students get visas.

But if the Register is so important, then how it’s progressing is important to the sector too, as is a concern that it might not be as all-encompassing as might have been imagined.

Who’s on?

Fiona McIntyre noted that OfS had missed its latest deadline for getting ‘most’ providers on the register by the end of October. Of the 327 who had applied by May, only 204 had been approved, six of them with conditions.  by 18 September there had been 431 applications.  There are 123 to go from the first tranche, by my reckoning 5 of which are universities, and then another 104 how applied over the summer.  I’m interested in conditions; the latest batch includes two universities who have to demonstrate better plans in B3, concerning student persistence and outcomes.

Who’s not on

At the consultation stage, it was thought that in 2018/19 there would be 88 providers in the “approved” category and 390 in the “approved fee-cap” category (split 58 alternative providers, 204 further education colleges and 125 higher education institutions). At that point I was particularly worried about the providers missing from the approved categories – some being allowed into the dubious “registered basic” category (which was thankfully dropped). OfS have a spreadsheet of all those providers who were regulated either by HEFCE or who had specific course designation from DfE. There are 807 providers on that list. There’s also the matter of approval for Tier 4 licences from the Home Office. There are HE providers on that register who were running courses without funding but who needed visas for their students; both campuses of international universities but also UK-based providers – there’s no easy way to count how many of those holding Tier 4 (General) licences were offering HE programmes.

So, if last year there were at least 807 providers under regulation, there’s an issue with 431 applying to OfS. That’s fewer than DfE projected would join. What’s happened to the 376 – at least 45% of the HE providers in England last year?

Franchised HE

My hypothesis is that a lot of the provision has moved towards franchising.  One of the striking things about the OfS framework was the way it made a clear distinction between “validation” and “franchise”. In OfS terms there is now a clear difference: validation is where a provider A’s students get the award of provider B; franchise arrangements are where provider A teaches the students of provider B. In validation, provider A needs to be OfS approved for students to get fee or maintenance loans of visas. But in franchise deals, provider A is all but invisible to OfS.

Let’s imagine a case study. There’s a provider called Alpha College which operates multiple degree programmes franchised from Beta University. There’s not much publicly available information about Alpha College but its courses are on Unistats. Some of the courses seem to be having a rocky time, but that happens.  The data for some show a very low continuation rate, data on others shows low satisfaction linked to course management failings.

As a franchise, students apply through UCAS to Beta who are regulated accordingly. However, it’s hard to see how OfS will bring that to bear. There’s reference to Alpha College in Beta University’s Access and Participation Plan, but not the detail that covers students at the university. Unistats data can be complex for small alternative providers, and, course, doesn’t exist yet for postgraduate courses at all.   The Student Protection Plan at Beta might not be as concrete about students at Alpha.

These generates problems for OfS.  They don’t have a direct relationship with Alpha College, so any issue they do have has to be dealt with as a condition of registration for Beta.  Alpha will have some QAA interactions, depending on its status, which will feed information in.  Indirect oversight of colleges offering HNDs by Edexcel is one of the reasons that we have the OfS.  It would be a unintended consequence of the new framework if OfS now has less oversight than before.

Weirdly, following the precedent set by UA92, DfE can allow Alpha to be renamed Alpha University Campus and yet OfS have no direct oversight of something the local press will insist on calling a ‘university’ thereafter.

Worse may follow.  Remember that Jo Johnson accused universities of acting like bouncers, not letting colleges in to be the competition?  The ability to use franchise with more limited oversight by OfS might allow new providers into the system, but now all the risk falls on the university.  A risk averse university may now be more reluctant to franchise to a provider which might trigger a condition of approval, a QAA HE Review or some other sanction.  This might be the worst unintended consequence; a reluctance to support new providers.

The Office for Some Students

The forward schedule for OfS Board meetings has ‘validation’ on agendas for the next two meetings, so it’s a fair assumption that as well as the issue of how OfS will discharge its own validation powers, the issue of the number of providers operating under franchise will be getting attention. But with OfS stressing its role in protecting students, those being taught at providers not on the register might be surprised how little OfS offers them.

[This article first appeared on Wonkhe on 12 November 2018 – it has been updated to reflect the number of providers that applied by 18 September and those on the OfS Register on 22 November]