When the Government shut HE institutions

A key concern about autonomy in higher education is that Governments might decide to shut institutions. In England that prospect has been examined from the perspective that the new Regulator, the Office for Students, might let an institution, a provider, close. This would be most likely because of market forces, but the legislation behind the OfS also includes the prospect that it might not register a provider, which would preclude it using university title, awarding degrees, having its students supported by the SLC or sponsoring students who need visas. The OfS have revealed they have been considering not registering some providers who applied. Those providers could continue by franchising courses from providers on the register, but that comes with issues.

But what if the Government decided there were too many providers of higher education? What if they looked at the number of graduates that the country needed and decided to reduce the number – in a planned and relatively open way? This might seem unthinkable, but it’s something the Government has done before.

It’s often forgotten that at the time of the Robbins Report the majority of higher education took place outside the universities. When the report was published there were 31 universities but, in addition to the art schools and various forms of technical colleges, there were 146 teacher training colleges in England and Wales with a further 7 in Scotland. Robbins devoted a chapter to teacher training, recommending a new model for co-operation with universities and the upgrading of the available qualifications with a BEd degree. One of the key outcomes of the formation of polytechnics was the consolidation of many of these into larger multi-faculty bodies.

In 1970 Lord James was appointed to look again at teacher education. His report tried to systematise 3 phases of teacher training, with the notion that a broader liberal education might form a platform for a second phase of teacher training. The DipHE was born as a two-year course to do this, intended to be within the reach of the colleges of education to deliver.

The HE White Paper that followed was titled ‘a Framework for Expansion’, but it was clear this didn’t mean in teacher training:

On present trends the best estimate which the Government can make is that the number of initial training places required in the colleges and polytechnic departments of education by 1981 will be 60,000-70,000 compared with the 1971-72 figure of about 114,000.

Many of the 160 colleges are, however, comparatively small and inconveniently located for development into larger general purpose institutions… Some must face the possibility that in due course they will have to be converted to new purposes; some may need to close.

DES, 1972, Education: A Framework for Expansion

Confirmation came in Circular 7/73; teacher training numbers were to halve, colleges would close. A process of deciding which ones, now set off, sometimes quickly, sometimes quite protracted. The discussion focused on which colleges would remain, which colleges would merge, which colleges would lose their teacher training and which would close, complicated by the pattern of ownership by both local authorities and churches. The churches, in particular, were faced with facilitating mergers and closures t to maintain their overall provision.

The institutional histories of the surviving colleges recount the near-misses and missed opportunities. For example, the failed merger of the Salisbury and Winchester colleges resulted in outright closure for the College of Sarum St Michael (Wiltshire remains a county without the main campus of an HEI). Indeed the list of closed colleges of education include many towns without a main campus of an HEI, although there are university centres in places as diverse as Milton Keynes and Shrewsbury.

Former Radbrook College, Shrewsbury

The following list of closed colleges is taken from a written parliamentary answer, including the date of closure and the number of ITT students on the roll when the closure decision was taken.

Date of closure Institution ITT students
31-Aug-77 Alnwick College of Education 379
  Mary Ward College, Nottingham 509
  Radbrook College, Shrewsbury 124
  Saffron Walden College of Education 326
31-Aug-78 Coloma College of Education, West Wickham 559
  Darlington College of Education 406
  Hereford College of Education 682
  Hockerill College, Bishop’s Stortford 490
  Kesteven College of Education, Grantham (main college) 550
  Maria Assumpta College, London 392
  St. Paul’s College, Rugby 449
  St. Peter’s College, Saltley 588
  College of Sarum St. Michael, Salibury 427
  Wentworth Castle College of Education, Barnsley 261
31-Aug-79 Culham College of Education, Abingdon 528
  Middleton St. George College of Education, Darlington 642
  Sedgley Park College of Education, Manchester 481
  Sittingbourne College of Education 345
31-Aug-80 Eaton Hall College of Education, Retford 553
  Gloucestershire College of Education, Gloucester 401
  Kesteven College of Education (Peterborough Annexe) 117
  Philippa Fawcett and Furzedown College of Education, London 941
  Stockwell College of Education, Bromley 623
  Thomas Huxley College, Ealing 267
31-Aug-81 Northumberland College of Education, Ponteland 686
31-Dec-81 Milton Keynes College of Education 248

Some of the closed colleges were venerable: Culham College near Oxford was among the wave of Church of England teacher training colleges, having been founded in 1852. Some had shorter lives: Mary Ward College, a Catholic college near Nottingham, was officially opened in June 1970, its closure was agreed in 1974 and the site was taken over by the British Geological Survey in 1977.

Mary Ward College, Keyworth 1973

The buildings of the closed colleges have had interesting fates. Some have kept educational functions, such as the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford or Jamia-Al-Karm in Eaton Hall, Retford. Saffron Walden College spent 30 years as Bell College, but has now become housing. This fate has eventually come to some of the colleges that merged; Alsager College merged with Crewe and then with MMU, but is now a housing development called Scholar’s Place. This will be the final outcome for Lady Spencer Churchill College when Oxford Brookes vacates the site at Wheatley.

Proposal for housing at Wheatley

Although higher education institutions are remarkably resilient, it is worth noting that over-reliance on the government, especially if focused on one area of activity, can make them vulnerable. It’s unlikely that the DfE would be suddenly griped by the need to regulate the provision of business courses or performing arts courses such that it would set out to decide where provision ought to be focused across England. It’s worth reflecting that a sector that was booming in the late 1960s, with an impressive geographical spread with a heritage of institutions over 100 years old could suddenly be so seriously affected.

For further reading I would suggest: Henke, D, 1978, Colleges in Crisis, Harmondsworth, Penguin. His is a less angry account than many published in the 1970s, but still captures the craziness.