State Funding – a deputation

On 23 November 1918 the President of the Board of Education and the Chancellor of the Excequer received a deputation from Universities in Britain and Ireland to make the case for increased state funding.

The meeting was 12 days after the signing of the armistice, and the War was a theme to the presentations made.  There were 67 people on the university side; lay members of council, vice-chancellors and principals (including Miss Tuke of Bedford College, the only woman present) and committee members of the Universities Bureau of the British Empire.  Cases were made for different disciplines, citing their usefulness and issues for Scottish and Irish Universities were outlined, although their relevant secretaries of state were not present.

The minutes of the proceedings set out the arguments made.  A note from Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, a former education minister, set the tone – a nation that had been spending £6-7 million a day on fighting the war could afford £2 million a year to support higher education.

Sir Oliver Lodge spoke first, representing the ‘Modern Universities’. He concentrated on professorial salaries, noting that a large increase was needed for them.

You may be starving the source of the golden eggs by not dealing with this matter in a liberal fashion. Professorships must be established on a better footing.

He then described how the basis of University education must be enlarged, ‘throwing it open to a wider class of the community’, and describing how more activity would require more funding.  He also recounted how Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary, had encouraged the universities ‘to get American students over here and to send our men over there’.  He explained how universities were establishing a new degree ‘having as its object a training in research’ for both home and American students.  But, he noted, these new PhDs would be expensive to teach.

His pitch was for the 1915 review of the grant (which had been planned to double expenditure but didn’t happen because of the war) to be added to a 1920 review (another doubling) but noting that ‘we cannot wait; we want these two doublings put together, we want a quadrupling at once’

Following a statement on Scotland,  Sir Bertram Windle, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, spoke of the special needs of Ireland, but also turned to the special contribution of the humanities.

May I emphasise the truth that we have won the War and the Victory on which civilisation depends, not less by moral than by material forces, and that the humanities, as taught in the schools and Universities, have had their own high and necessary contribution to make both to the national appreciation of the issues for which we went to war, and the good conscience with which we fought and endured our sacrifices.

He then turned on German education…

The perverted mentality of our foes which rendered possible their criminal assault upon civilisation was due to the predominant reliance in their systems of education upon material force, to their extremely narrow ideas of intellectual discipline, to the false philosophy of the State taught in their Universities for the last forty years and to their disregard of those moral influences in education of which the humanities are the record and enforcement.

Sir William Bragg, attending for the Universities Bureau, covered the immense contribution of University science to the war effort. In 2017 we might find some ambivalence towards perfecting explosives, targeting artillery or creating new gases, but this was 1918.  He spoke particularly about the struggle against submarines, how applied science had used an idea from pure science to detect them, and how the work would continue such that the submarine could be neutralised.  He said:

What time means in fighting the submarine it does not need any more words of mine to explain. The whole of the grants that we have been asking for to-day might be swallowed up in the sums you can think of in questions like that. The attitude that understands just what science can do and what it cannot do, and how to set it to work in England, and its function, the natural function of a University, to do it; the fruits of a University are seen in the attitude of the people towards knowledge.

Moreover, we must provide men filled with a desire to learn.  We must provide laboratories to teach them in and the staff to teach them.  And so I say that, when we think of the problems of this war and put them together in our minds, we recognise that to a very great extent it is to the development of the University that we must look for the solution to the problems of the future.

The Chancellor, Andrew Bonar Law, was cautious in response, not able to pledge any money there and then. He was sympathetic to the ‘desire that the University should extend right down to the very bottom of our social system’ – here the minutes record ‘(Hear, hear)’.  When he concluded that proposals put to Government would be considered at least sympathetically – the record notes ‘(Cheers)’.

The President of the Board of Education, H A L Fisher, the former Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield, reiterated that the Government would consider their proposal carefully.

I am convinced – and my conviction has been deepened by the impressive mass of testimony which I have heard to-day – of the necessity of a very much more liberal assistance from the State to the higher learning in this country. (Cheers.) And I am equally convinced, from my long connexion  with Universities, of the great value of preserving University autonomy. (Cheers.)

The mechanism for distributing funds, keeping the notion of a quinquennial grant, was entrusted to the University Grants Committee who reported to the Treasury and not to the Board of Education.    The evolution of state support for British Universities could now quicken pace.  The war has slowed down the development of state support, but it demonstrated, as the Deputation showed, how valuable Universities could be to the country.
It should be noted, as Fisher did, that although the Universities were united in wanting more funds, they were divided on the issue of how to handle different costs of degree courses and the fees associated with them.



Chief Executive’s pay: a provocation

Lord Adonis has provoked a discussion on Vice-Chancellors’ pay.  Follow his tweets and you’ll see that he moves from the issue of tuition fees to the twin issues of the length of degree courses (which unwisely he linked to long summer holidays for academic staff) and VC’s pay.  There have been comprehensive rebuttals of the holidays issue – (see the Plashing Vole here) but not so obviously on VC’s pay.

This is not a defence of Vice-Chancellor’s pay.  This is not even an attempt to explain all the different facets that make up the reason why Vice-Chancellors pay has increased (one issue – the transfer market for ‘successful’ VCs  – I’ve touched on before).  I just want to touch on an aspect of the change:  that universities are now in a complex ‘market’ situation, and you can start to understand why remuneration committees are getting excitable about recruiting or retaining good Vice-Chancellors.

Universities have always competed for students, staff and resources.  Oxford and Cambridge Colleges built new accommodation blocks in the 18th Century to attract the sons of nobility.  Our central clearing house for admissions is a testament to the competition for the best applicants, even when demand severely outstripped supply.  The rhetoric around these markets has increased however.   Universities have struggled in the past, and the history of mergers hints at those past difficulties.  Starting with the talk of avalanches, we now see market forces at play – the VC at Huddersfield has launched a voluntary severance scheme citing:

“Once again the higher education sector faces many challenges – private providers are being encouraged to enter the marketplace, there is uncertainty about fees and our competitors are being increasingly aggressive in their student recruitment tactics. All this must influence how we shape our strategy for the next few years.

“To ensure that we maintain and develop our place within the market we have begun a process of closely analysing the provision we offer and this will continue into the future.

Different generations will no doubt understand aggressive student recruitment tactics differently; the first prospectus was probably seen as being a bit pushy, certainly De Montfort’s first TV ad was.  The point is that universities’ position as a safe public sector organisation is now under threat, even to the point of ‘market exit’.

One core argument why private sector pay is higher than in the public sector is risk.  In the private sector staff are hired and fired more easily, companies close or are taken over.  As a company can be more volatile, senior managers take greater risks, and should be rewarded.   Universities are not businesses, and comparisons are invidious, but, just for fun, here’s a quick comparison.

RM Plc

Let’s look at RM plc; a ‘major provider of resources, software and services to the education sector’.  RM has had some difficult years as they’ve transitioned out of providing hardware for schools into other services.  RM is heavily dependent on education spending, the bulk of which comes from public sources.  It employs 1800 people of whom 600 are based in India.    Its revenue for the year to November 2016 was £167.6m.


RM’s remuneration policy is set out in its annual report.

The Policy is designed to attract, retain and motivate Directors and senior employees, both to achieve the Group’s business objectives and to deliver outstanding shareholder returns. To achieve this, RM’s Remuneration Policy aims to provide ‘median’ reward compared to comparator groups when acceptable levels of performance have been delivered. For the achievement of outstanding performance, it aims to deliver ‘upper quartile’ remuneration compared to comparator groups.

Helpfully the policy also says it avoids excessive risk taking by executives just to try and maximise their own personal returns.  The chief executive received total remuneration of £655k in the year to Nov 2016 (this includes shares – which accounts for why the sum is significantly down on the total of £1246k in 2015 when he got £749k worth of shares).

University of Bath

The University of Bath employed 2800 staff in the year ending July 2016, and had an income of £263 million.  Clearly it is also dependent on direct and indirect public funding for education and research, but its income has been going up each year, and it is exceeding its targets for surplus generation.


We’ve all seen that the Vice-Chancellor got paid £451k in the year to July 2016, and Lord Adonis pointed out that benefits in kind and external income probably carried that to over £500k.  Although Bath is a successful university, no doubt the attention the news got is because it is not one of ‘leading’ universities (©Russell Group).

The University of Bath isn’t a company, and there’s no suggestion that you could interchange its chief executive with that of RM Plc.  But the chap at RM got paid £200k more in 2016 for running a company with 1000 fewer staff and £100m less revenue/income than Bath.


Lord Adonis rounded on the University of Bath in the House of Lords.  He noted that Bath was a ‘mid-ranking university’ and as the bulk of its funds came directly or indirectly from Government, they should have a say in the pay levels.

… the highly paid should set an example, particularly at a time of pay restraint. The only example the vice-chancellor of the University of Bath is setting to her staff is one of greed.

If the VC at Bath getting £451k is ‘greed’, then why isn’t the same tag applied to the CEO at RM?  Maybe Lord Adonis would think it is, but I think that’s unlikely.  Lord Adonis is a board member at RM and sits on the remuneration committee.  You’d have to assume that he’s signed up to their remuneration policy, and doesn’t think that the CEO getting £655k – a large part coming from school budgets – is setting a bad example.

CEO pay is a general problem.  It cannot be justifiable that their work is valued so much more highly than the work of others in their organisations.  That’s not to say that  there shouldn’t be something of a differential as greater responsibilities are taken on, but not at so steep a gradient.  Universities should push back against the corporate model, no doubt advocated by governors with experience of company boards, against the inflated wages for the CEO/VC.








Disrupting Academic Dress: The Girls’ Own Paper

For most universities graduation brings the only occasion that academic dress is worn.  In the main this is an occasion that requires a hire company as graduands aren’t going to need it again.  Universities tend to hire it for their staff, so most don’t own a set.  This has meant a fairly stable economy for the academic dress hire companies; growth in the sector has seen a rise in the number of institutions and ceremonies.

This looks like a stable business, after all Ede & Ravenscroft have been in business since 1689.  One new company, Marston Robing, have branched out into offering extra services such as children’s graduation gowns.  In his affectionate  summary of the fun of graduation, Paul Greatrix notes that there’s now a disruptive company Graduation Attire, offering a service direct to the graduate.


No doubt this will challenge some university ceremony organisers – the ties that a university has with its gown provider are often very long, and as Paul notes, there are challenges in getting the colours or patterns just right.  Dig out the academic dress regulations for your university and you’ll find a set of exacting requirements (helpfully collated by the wonderful Burgon Society here).  Although the description of gowns and hood may look similar in principle, look carefully and you’ll soon see that the claret and blue combinations for PhDs at Nottingham and Southampton are as distinctive as the claret and blue combinations for Aston Villa and West Ham.   There’s a disclaimer offered by Graduation Attire:

Whilst our hoods are normally very suitable for use at Graduations, we are always slightly cautious about recommending this where we are not the Official Robe maker. Usually a University will have a contract with an official supplier and you may not be allowed to cross the stage if you are not wearing full and correct academic dress. Our hoods will conform to the regulations involved but may differ in shade from those provided by the Official Robe Maker and this may make you look different from your colleagues as you cross the stage. Since it is your responsibility to ensure you wear the correct academic dress at your Graduation and it is such an important day for you and your guests, we strongly recommend you explore all options with the Official Robe Maker first.

Although having an ‘Official Robe Maker’ makes sense, it’s not obligatory.  In Oxford, where academic dress features much more in the daily life of the university, there is no monopoly provider.

University Hoods and How to Make Them

But what if there was another way of disrupting the monopoly?

The Girls’ Own Paper launched after women had won the right to enter examinations at English universities, and its advice column carried useful details on how to be admitted etc.  More fabulously, they had a stupendous article which noted that women had ‘an equal right to disport themselves in the distinctive hood of their degree whensoever and wheresoever they may deem fit’ (Vol1 no36).  But, they noted, there was the problem of the costliness of these articles.  The answer was that the ‘cost may be greatly reduced by making at home’ and that the paper would ‘place within reach of our girls an additional means of bestowing a most useful and acceptable gift upon father, brother or cousin’.

The article gives a history of academic dress, and sets out the various different colours of the hoods, each denoting the different degree.  The reader is advised to see an example of a hood before ordering their silk as the colours are unique: ‘Palatinate purple [Durham] is a pale tint, more nearly approaching the mauve or lilac of a milliner, yet not quite like either of these’.  The texture is also described: ‘the glossy black silk used as alining to the Divinity hoods is the bright glacé silk, in popular use for ladies dresses before the rage for dull, heavy cords set in.

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The Cambridge MA Hood

Then comes the instructions on how to actually make them.    Having laid out your black silk, a white silk lining then laid on it, with a further black binding (details available on request).

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The Oxford hood

The Oxford version is much less complicated (one of those rare occasions when Oxford is less complicated than anything).  The BA hood being lined with fur and the MA hood with crimson silk.  The BMus and BCL hoods are made of an ‘ordinary blue corded silk, such as is used for ladies dresses, of not too pale a shade’.

Equipped with these instructions, and hopefully an existing hood to cut an accurate pattern from, the author hopes and believes that ‘by a careful study of these directions a very successful hood may be made’.

The admission of women to British universities was the most extraordinarily disruptive act.  It’s dangerous to assume the motives of the editors of the Girls Own Paper, but I like to think this article is being both practical and also wonderfully subversive.  Yes; women could make hoods for their fathers and brothers, but also they could now ‘don those bright distinctive badges of their well won honours’ for themselves.  Good luck if you want to make your own hood – but just reflect on how marvellous it is that so many people can now ‘disport themselves in the distinctive hood of their degree whensoever and wheresoever they may deem fit’.


TEF and the Controlled Reputational Range

One core function of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is to celebrate teaching in our universities and other providers.  The publication of the results of the second round have been widely discussed in the sector, with some inevitable media coverage of what it means to be given the ‘silver’ or ‘bronze’ levels, particularly whether those providers are second or third rate.  But, for all my concerns about TEF, I wonder if there is a message that the sector should take away from this process – that it confirms the continued existence of the Controlled Reputational Range.

One of the concepts that Sir David Watson explored in his writing was that of the Controlled Reputational Range.  This was the notion that in UK Higher Education, although there could not be exact parity between all universities, there was a framework that meant that no institution was able to behave so badly that it damaged the overall reputation of the sector.  He described it in 2002, but returned to it several times.

Watson not only described the range, but he did much to bring it into effect.  He was closely involved in the merger of the two HE sectors in 1992, working on the funding arrangements for the new sector and more prominently on the quality assurance of the new sector.  The 1992 merger, particularly the awarding of university title to all the polytechnics and two colleges, caused much alarm.  Quality assurance was more systematic on the PCFC side; a function of both CNAA and HMI regimes.  The autonomous universities on the UFC side had a better public perception of their quality, but not necessarily their quality assurance.   The regime of Teaching Quality Assurance – which later became Subject Review – was vital in calming down nerves about a unified sector which suddenly looked as if it had jumped from an elite to a mass system.  The former UFC universities did better than might have been expected, generally achieving a higher number of ‘excellent’ judgements, but the PCFC side held up well.  By 2001 it was clear that the mass inspection system had played its role, and it was dropped in favour of Teaching Quality Information (TQI).  You could argue TEF is the apotheosis of TQI.

TEF accentuates the difference between providers with the Gold, Silver and Bronze awards, but the analysis done by both WonkHe and THE shows that these judgements are not based on the metrics alone.  Some Silver providers have ‘better’ outcomes on the benchmarked metrics than those awarded Gold.  Ranking using z-scores accentuates the difference between providers, but the benchmarking closes the gap in performance overall.  I think this shows that the controlled reputational range has worked; clearly universities recruiting highly prepared students have better absolute outcomes, but universities have exceeeded expectations across the reputational range.

Given that higher education has always been wider than those institutions with university title or access to government funding, the TEF does show how the new registration regime with OfS may help to maintain the reputational range.  The write-up for Moorlands College achieving a provisional grade might be slightly over the top, but being in the TEF will be a new marker of quality in the sector.  Those alternative providers with sufficient data to be graded achieved each of the three levels.

The funded part of the HE sector was subject to some very considerable, if sometimes invisible, regulation through their data.  HEFCE rules on, say, completion drove institutional behaviour.  The TEF may have a similar effect.  That is why the review must look at the data chosen for the exercise as it will drive performance – probably even for universities who you might have thought could shrug off a ‘bronze’ award.  Of course, if we could just drop the pretence that the TEF was actually about teaching excellence and abandon the gimmicky grading system (and the further rankings coming from it), then it could be a light touch system of ensuring that providers stay within that controlled reputational range.



TEF: The ultimate degree classification

We are in the season where boards of examiners are meeting to decide the classifications of students. Data on the performance of students is carefully brought together, and a set of rules applied to render three or four years of work into a single classification. There is a parallel with the TEF – a single classification for the teaching – at least the undergraduate teaching – of a whole university. Sadly, many of the same problems apply.

One of the complaints about the degree classification system is that it presents a cliff-edge between grades.  Even ministers have backed the elaborate mechanisms put in place to present the HEAR and GPA alongside the honours classification.    TEF will also have its extra information, but the first focus will be on the three grades: gold, silver and bronze.

TEF Bronze

If any import is attached to these grades then the cliff-edge will really matter. It’s very helpful that ministers have explicitly ruled them out of bounds in the visa system but other uses apart from fee setting will be found in the future.  As with a degree system, the difference between the very lowest of the silver and the very highest of the bronze will be tiny.  Here the sorities paradox must come into play (see my discussion of that in terms of visa rules here).  Universities who excitedly claim they’ve moved 10 places in a league table know that they are only fractionally different from the peers they moved past – but that may take them over a threshold.

The good news (and simultaneously the bad news) is that the TEF will be published with the metrics data, the submission and the panel’s reasons for the judgement.  In my degree classification analogy; not only do we get the degree class, but a transcript (the metrics) and the outcome of the viva (the submission).  When the data is released to both universities and the media, there will be a frantic scramble to discover who has a ‘good’ silver, or who only scraped their gold. More fun, we’ll surely be able to tell whose written submission pulled them up, left them where they were – or conceivably pulled them down (viva voce exams tend not to have the scope of reducing your grade – but the statement might do that).

The TEF gets described as a new ranking – there’s no way the ranking business will let the sector get away with three grades.  All those data will get puled apart to create a GPA for the sector (no doubt with new means of stretching the data).

Now that the fee-level jeopardy has been pushed into the future, some of the jeopardy has been reduced, but we have already seen signs of universities reacting to TEF by changing the things that contribute to the sets of proxy data, not by being better at teaching. It’s easier to get students who will do better in the TEF, than get better outcomes for them –  that’s certainly the context of some comments about Manchester’s redundancy round.  If so, we’ll have the most awful consequences of accepting proxy data for assessing teaching excellence.

I should say that I write this from a Rawlsian veil of ignorance. I don’t know the metrics data of any university, what that might have indicated their award would be, or what they tried to say in their submission.  I know that no rational university ought to be pleased with the situation we will find ourselves in when TEF is published.  Even if they’ve just done enough to get a silver…


UKIP: Righting Wrongs in Higher Education

The UKIP manifesto, in so many ways the ultimate proof that a little learning is a dangerous thing, contains a whole range of policies that sit at one remove to orthodoxy in their fields.  There are too many to recount, but in the field of Higher Education they make an outstanding contribution to the development of the More Means Worse argument, and so should be recognised here.  No doubt UKIP being led by former PhD student Paul Nuttall helps enormously.

First we have policies for students in health.

Despite our national doctor shortage, nearly 800 straight ‘A’ students are turned away from medical school every year.
UKIP will lift the cap on medical school training places from 7,500 to 10,000 and make sure no suitable ‘A’ grade student fails to get a place. Provided medical students commit to working within the NHS for at least ten out of the fifteen years after they qualify, we will cover the cost of all their tuition fees (18-19)

This policy ignores the measures already in place to expand medical student numbers, but this is an area where it is notoriously hard to grow capacity quickly.

While 3 A grade A levels has been necessary for some time for acceptance to medical school it is not sufficient.  Being a doctor is about much more – hence their more extended selection process. Intrigued how UKIP will determine ‘suitability’ to allow all of them to get places?

The NHS needs 24,000 more nurses and 3,500 more midwives, yet again potential students are being turned away, tens of thousands of them every year.
UKIP will increase the number of nurse training placements, reinstate funding for bursaries to cover nursing, midwifery and allied health professions’ tuition and accommodation costs, and cover the cost of  re-training for nurses who have taken career breaks. (19)

We wait to see how changing from a contracting system to an uncapped student number system is going to work out.  There were more applicants than places, but just as with doctors, nursing education is selective.  Contracts meant Universities had to be very clear on recruiting people who would succeed – that’s what they were contracted to do.  A student loan system might open that up.

A key reason for moving to loans was to reduced pressure on Health budgets – going to uncapped places & bursaries would be expensive.

The average student debt is £44,000. The poorest students who are now denied a grant fare worst of all, with debts averaging £53,000. These debts are often pointless in career terms: the latest figures from the ONS show 46 per cent of new graduates will not find a job needing a degree. The taxpayer fares badly too. Only around half of the money spent on tuition fee loans will be paid back.
The quota system promoted by both Labour and Conservatives is not a good enough reason for taxpayers to pay for students to go to university. Students would be better off following another route into the workplace than taking degrees that are unlikely to help them get a job or guide them onto their chosen  career path.
The politically motivated decision to increase university places has deceived and blighted a generation. UKIP will stop paying tuition fees for courses which do not lead at least two thirds of students into a graduate level job, or a job corresponding to their degree, within five years after graduation. We will also cease offering EU nationals student loans when we leave the EU. Repayment rates are extremely low and 10,000 EU students currently owe Britain £89 million. (25)
UKIP’s long-term goal is to abolish tuition fees entirely and we will seek to enact this as soon as economic conditions allow. Meanwhile, to help the poorest students now, we will immediately restore maintenance grants.
To plug the skills gap in these areas, UKIP will abolish tuition fees for undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students, provided they work in their discipline and pay tax in the UK for at least five years after they complete their degree. We will cover the cost of all tuition fees for medical students, provided they commit to working within the NHS for at least ten out of the fifteen years after  they qualify. (25)

UKIP falls into line with the Labour and Green parties in wanting to abolish fees, although they clearly don’t want as many students to go into higher education.

They’ve never avoiding saying that too many people are going into higher education, and have been fixated by Tony Blair’s supposed 50% target. Never mind that Blair hasn’t been PM for a while now, or that 50% quickly got some important caveats, this is at the heart of their problem.  The move to a mass HE system is clearly a problem for them and UKIP have threatened courses and whole institutions before.

Here they propose a grim system whereby the tenuous evidence of causation of previous cohorts of students will be applied to the fee status of future cohorts.  Assuming this will be based on courses in individual universities, if the class of 2015 fail to obtain sufficiently graduate jobs in, say, law, then the intake in 2021 won’t have their fees paid.  Given the differences between courses or demographics – this will produce wild variations with an extraordinary cliff-edge for individual courses.

We need an educated work-force.  For a party that seems content to model education policy on the 1950s, they should take a look at the nature of work (if that’s really the only goal of higher education) and wonder why this fantastic proliferation of studies has happened?  It’s a response to the complexity of our world.  Both in ‘vocational’ and ‘non-vocational’ degrees, we have so much more to understand and manage.

Finally, the systems they propose for ‘abolishing’ STEM fees or forgiving Medical fees would need a really complex system to manage.  The student must incur the liability, which must then be waived by 5 years (STEM) or 10 years (medicine) work.  Who decides which jobs qualify?  As an example, if the medicine version doesn’t include university work it will remove clinicians from medical research – surely not the aim?

Operated on a strict principle of non-discrimination between peoples of all nations applying for work, study, or to visit the United Kingdom, our new International Visa System will begin on the date we leave the EU and offer four principal visa categories: …
3. STUDENT VISAS We want to encourage students to study in Britain, but will not tolerate abuse of the system. (33)

Worth ending on a happy note. UKIP want to encourage international students. No talk of caps or quotas.
You could argue that in 2015 UKIP pulled the Conservatives towards their policies by their share of the vote – examples are Brexit, of course, but also grammar schools.  That’s less likely in 2017.  But each party threatens some form of review of HE funding, and UKIP shows the More Means Worse argument is still alive and kicking.

Return of the Colleges of Advanced Technology

Are the Conservatives raiding the 1950s for ideas?  Adopting ideas from UKIP seems to be in vogue, and they were very keen on themes from the 1950s.  Is that where the next big ideas are coming from?

The Conservative Party manifesto has moved the notion of institutes of technology on, now saying:

We will establish new institutes of technology, backed by leading employers and linked to leading universities, in every major city in England. They will provide courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines, such as STEM, whilst also providing higher-level apprenticeships and bespoke courses for employers. They will enjoy the freedoms that make our universities great, including eligibility for public funding for productivity and skills research, and access to loans and grants for their students. They will be able to gain royal charter status and regius professorships in technical education. Above all, they will become anchor institutions for local, regional and national industry, providing sought-after skills to support the economy, and developing their own local identity to make sure they can meet the skills needs of local employers.

This has provoked some comparison with the binary policy, where polytechnics were set up to focus on technical education, responsive to local needs.  However, I think they have more in common with an earlier initiative, the Colleges of Advanced Technology, a 1950s answer to the need for higher technical skills.

As it emerged from post-war austerity, the UK became enthused by the prospects of technology.  The Festival of Britain was a marker of this as was the development of iconic technologies such as Comet, the first jet airliner.  Britain was producing increasing numbers of qualified school leavers and the universities had moved from an immediate expansion after the war to cope with returning veterans to also cope with an growing number of applicants.

Technical education, whose status seems a permanent problem, was organised into local, regional and national colleges.  The Colleges had a mixture of full and part-time courses, with some specialisation at the regional colleges and the national colleges serving small, but nationally important, industries such as horology and scientific instrument making or rubber technology.  David Eccles presented the 1956 White Paper on Technical Education proposing that the bulk of full-time or sandwich courses should be concentrated in  a small number of colleges.

The rationale for concentrating courses in a few colleges was linked to standards; sufficient staff, linked subjects in allied technologies and fundamental sciences and opportunities for research.  Building on previous decisions twenty four colleges were highlighted, based on those that had received a specific grant because of their advanced work.  In the end, only ten Colleges of Advanced Technology were approved in England and Wales, and three were not included in that initial list.

White Paper CAT Status Present Designation
Acton Technical College Brunel CAT Brunel University
Birmingham College of Technology Birmingham CAT Aston University
Borough Polytechnic London South Bank University
Bradford Technical College Bradford Institute of Technology University of Bradford
Brighton Technical College University of Brighton
Cardiff College of Technology & Commerce Welsh CAT Cardiff University
Chelsea Polytechnic Chelsea CAT Merged into Kings College, London
Glamorgan Technical College University of South Wales
Huddersfield Technical College University of Huddersfield
Lambeth, Brixton LCC School of Building London South Bank University
Leicester College of Technology and Commerce De Monfort University
Liverpool College of Building Liverpool John Moores University
North Staffordshire Technical College University of Staffordshire
Northampton Polytechnic Northampton CAT City, University of London
Northern Polytechnic London Metropolitan University
Nottingham & District Technical College Nottingham Trent University
Royal Technical College Royal CAT University of Salford
Rugby College of Technology and Arts
Sir John Cass College London Metropolitan University
Sunderland Technical College Sunderland University
West Ham College of Technology University of East London
Woolwich Polytechnic Greenwich University
Loughborough CAT Loughborough University
Battersea CAT Surrey University
Bristol CAT University of Bath

Measures of university prestige are awful, but it’s worth noting that by virtue of their CAT status, nine of the original 24 have a royal charter, a distinction that the Conservative manifesto would bestow on the new Institutes of Technology.  Robbins had suggested the CATS become technological universities or that they might join existing universities.  Chelsea CAT was often fought over, nearly moved to St Albans, and became part of the University of London in 1966, finally merging with King’s College in 1985.

The CATs were not given degree awarding powers, but the Council for Technological Awards accredited a new form of qualification: the Diploma of Technology.  this was set at degree standard, and given the same official standing.  However, as technology was seen in a new light, technologists were to be given a different education.  It mandated a sandwich approach to placements and other distinctive features such as a liberal studies programme.

The new Institutes of Technology seem to fit the CAT pattern.  In the Industrial Strategy Green Paper they were intended to specialise in technical disciplines and to cross the old post-compulsory age range.

We would expect most Institutes of Technology to grow out of high-quality provision. All Institutes of Technology would be expected to: specialise in technical disciplines (such as STEM) that are aligned to technical routes; offer high quality provision at levels 3, 4 and 5 ( i.e. the equivalent of A-level to just below degree); and have a local focus to deliver qualifications of value that meet the skills needs of local employers.

One of the issues that affected the CATs, and later the Polytechnics, was the balance between lower and higher work.  Although not officially a problem, often the sector would be split into sheep and goats on the basis of the proportion of higher education – as it was in 1988 when Kenneth Baker used an arbitrary measure to decide which colleges would become incorporated and move to the PCFC and which would remain under LEA control.  The notion of Academic Drift seems to have already started to work before the institutes even open.  The manifesto now has them operating at degree level or above, potentially accessing funding from both OfS and UKRI and having professorships, Regius or otherwise.

Implicitly these Institutes recognise the failure of ‘Challenger Institutions’ to do the work that the Government wants them to do.  These Institutes will be planned and receive government funding.  They will be distributed in ‘major cities’ – so that will mean a bidding process (the process for both CATs and Polytechnics was fraught).  I would also expect any specialism to need approving in some manner to avoid unhelpful duplication.  There has been limited interest among the Challengers in this form of broad technical provision, except for small specialist places such as Hereford and Malmsbury (Dyson), so here we have publicly funded colleges delivering the Conservatives’ new mission:

Above all, they will become anchor institutions for local, regional and national industry, providing sought-after skills to support the economy, and developing their own local identity to make sure they can meet the skills needs of local employers.

The 1956 White Paper was clear that is would be the ‘attitude of individual firms’ that would count the most towards success of technical education.  60 years on, the issues of the need for partnership remain the same, and it looks like the solution will be remarkably similar.