Differential Fees – still on the cards?

There are still rumblings about the prospect of differential fees, either to reflect costs or return on investment, all in the name of value for money.  Universities set different fees for non-regulated courses; I’ve noted before that there’s a substantial range for international students or postgraduates.

Undergraduate fees had been set by each university, but when the government regularised payment of fees by local authorities a simple set of maximum fee bands were set.  The standard fee was Band 1, courses with substantial practical activity were Band 2 and clinical courses were Band 3.  Courses were allocated to these bands by their UCAS subject code, although exceptional banding could be claimed (and the head of the institution had to sign to say that they’d applied the rules).  There were also rules for modular courses, set out by HEFCE as it tried to migrate institutions to a common funding model.  When HEFCE moved the fee stream into teaching grant these differentials were preserved in the price groups A-D, where A and B still receive additional teaching grant, now from OfS.

The prospect of differential fees on a three or four band basis seems unlikely.  These were funding tools, informing a block grant to a university which could then allocate funds itself.  University resource allocation models could add sophistication to the four bands, but subject to constant muttering about whether subjects which found themselves in A-D received a fair allocation.  There were some subjects that crossed these bands, which, in some years, resulted in a potential incentive to increase costs to obtain higher funds.  (I do wonder how the old band C subjects have done under the £9k fee system – are they still getting higher costs?)

So, how complicated would it be to bring back differential fees? There might be an answer already in action in the DfE in its apprenticeship strand.   There had been  funding caps, but from August 2018 DfE has allocated each of the 550 apprenticeship standards to one of 30 funding band maximums.  The maximum is not supposed to be the price, but only the maximum that can be claimed (it could be cheaper, and less money is claimed, or more expensive so the employer pays more).  Potentially the apprenticeship standards are as diverse as higher education courses, but they are a ‘standard’ with specified requirements and an end-point assessment.

The bands are fascinating.  Here, for example, is a selection of the standards where the fee band maximum is under £6000.

Sector Apprenticeship standard Level Band
HM Armed Forces HM Forces Serviceperson (Public Services) 2 2500
Public Service Business Fire Safety Advisor 3 2500
Adult care Lead Adult Care Worker 3 3000
Adult care Adult Care Worker 2 3000
Aviation Aviation Ground Specialist 3 3000
Healthcare Senior Healthcare Support Worker 3 3000
Housing Housing/Property Management


2 3000
Logistics and Supply Chain Supply Chain Operator 2 3000
Transport and Logistics Network Operations 2 3000
Public Service Custody and Detention Officer 3 3500
Agriculture, Env. & Animal Care Pest Control Technician 2 4000
Craft Spectacle Maker 3 4000
Customer service Customer Service Practitioner 2 4000
Customer service Customer Service Specialist 3 4000
Engineering and Manufacturing Textile Manufacturing Operative 2 4000
Administration Recruitment Consultant 3 5000
Agriculture, Env. & Animal Care Poultry Worker 2 5000
Aviation Aviation Operations Manager 4 5000
Food and Drink Food and Drink Process Operator 2 5000
Groundsmanship Sports Turf Operative 2 5000
Hospitality Senior Chef Production Cooking 3 5000
Law Probate Technician 4 5000
Leadership & Management Team Leader/Supervisor 3 5000
Logistics and Supply Chain Large Goods Vehicle (LGV) Driver 2 5000
Protective Services Safety Health and Environment Technician 3 5000
Public Service Teaching Assistant 3 5000
Transport and Logistics Cabin Crew 3 5000

This is differentiation in action.  The maximum for Cabin Crew is £2000 more than a Lead Adult Care Worker.   The groupings up to £9000 include abattoir workers, retail workers, golf greenkeepers, and maritime caterers.  The group from £9000 to £27,000 includes the degree apprenticeships and other programmes at levels 6 and 7, but also some high cost apprenticeships.  Here are some of them:

Sector Apprenticeship standard Level Band
Accounting Internal Audit Practitioner 4 9000
Butchery Butcher 2 9000
Catering and hospitality Baker 2 9000
Construction Painter and Decorator 2 9000
Hair and Beauty Hair Professional 2 9000
Hospitality Commis Chef 2 9000
Management Consultancy Junior Management Consultant 4 9000
Public Service Teacher 6 9000
Public Service Academic Professional 7 9000
Public Service Police Community Support Officer 4 9000
Construction Plasterer 3 10000
Construction Tunnelling Operative 2 12000
Digital Industries IT Technical Salesperson 3 12000
Media Junior Journalist 3 12000
Bespoke tailoring Bespoke Tailor and Cutter 5 15000
Bus, Coach and HGV Bus and Coach Engineering Technician 3 18000
Digital Industries Cyber Intrusion Analyst 4 18000
Building and Construction Architect (degree) 7 21000
Engineering and Manufacturing Organ Builder 3 24000
Boatbuilding Boatbuilder 3 27000
Creative and design Watchmaker 3 27000
Law Solicitor 7 27000
Leadership & Management Chartered Manager Degree


6 27000

Although Butcher and Baker have made it onto the list, there’s no separate category for candlestick maker yet.  Academic professionals will note the maximum for your apprenticeship is £9000 (there are full details on the Institute of Apprentices site).

Remember, these somewhat arbitrary bands are not the price of the course, although it’s the maximum that the levy can be used for, a provider and an employer can negotiate a higher price.  Even more importantly the apprentice cannot be charged.  As the government encourages the value for money argument for undergraduates, the prospect of a complex differentiation actually seems less likely.

Students might be grumpy about their fee being £9250, but what if the students in the next classroom are paying £7750 for something similar?  Someone must have decided there’s a rationale for the £3000 difference between a boatbuilder and an organ builder.  Is that just on cost, or on what the market will bear for the employers (surely that’s an aspect why adult care workers have such a low band).  But assumptions about employment pipelines might not work: assumptions that an apprentice watchmaker may stay in that job in a way that might not apply to a student on a BA in Horology.

It’s not obvious how differential fees can be applied fairly to a complex higher education system – the experience of bands for apprenticeship standards shows how complex this would be and they’re not even fees.


A new stage for the last federal university

Federal universities were once the major organising principle of British and Irish Higher Education.  At the turn of the 20th century we had four teaching universities (the Scottish universities), three collegiate examining universities (Cambridge, Durham and Oxford) and four federal examining universities (London, Royal University of Ireland, Victoria and Wales).  The examining universities were organised such that colleges undertook the teaching and the university examined the students.  The federal universities had emerged to ensure the standards at individual colleges, and was successfully growing a wide range of provision across England, Ireland and Wales.

In 1900 however, Birmingham got its own charter, not joining a proposed new federal university for the West.  That precipitated the demise of the Victoria University.  The Royal University split between the National University of Ireland and Queen’s Belfast.  Wales continued as a federation until a 2007 restructure as the main colleges became independent.  This leaves London.


London was the compromise following the founding of the two rivals: UCL and Kings.  Created as a government department to award degrees, it has gone through multiple phases of allowing internal and external students to its examinations.  These were hotly contested, not least through the ability of former students to participate in the debates through a powerful Convocation.

The past 40 years have seen a decline in the federal principle – colleges now award their own degrees, receive their own funding and operate as if they are universities in their own right.  Some shared services persist, but others, such as the University of London Union, have been disbanded as unnecessary (and often unhelpful) duplications. Imperial College (which hadn’t been keen when it was made to join the University) left in 2006 to become a separate university.  In 2016 City University gave up being a university in order to join the University of London – swapping its Chancellor for a Rector and its Vice-Chancellor for a President.

But this remains a curious situation.  UCL, which calls itself ‘London’s Global University’, isn’t strictly a university.  The University of London bill, up for second reading in the House of Commons, changes this again.  The bill is about the way the University of London makes statutes, changing its governance – but the primary purpose is in clause two, introducing a new measure.

“Member Institution” means an educational, academic or research institution
which is a constituent member of the University and has for the time
     (a) the status of a college under the statutes; or
     (b) the status of a university;

This will allow universities to be member institutions of the University of London.  The evidence supplied to the House of Lords notes

This legal situation stems from the University’s history and the description of the MIs [Member Institutions] as “Colleges” is now anomalous and unhelpful. The “College” descriptor also creates reputational difficulties for the MIs in the modern higher education landscape where private and alternative providers find it relatively easy to enter the market, as recognised universities.

Any MI could choose to leave the federation in order to achieve separate university status (as Imperial had to in 2006), but this would weaken the federal University and disadvantage the MI forced into that position. The MIs need to be able to obtain university title, but they wish to remain within the federation: Imperial did not have that choice.

The transcript of the Bill Committee highlights the confusion.  Richard Bull of Pinsent Masons explains that 12 of the members are currently applying to be universities but that although King’s College wants to be a university it doesn’t want to change it’s name, just as Imperial College hasn’t.  Maureen Bolan (Secretary of the University of London) explained:

It can call itself King’s College if it wants to, or just King’s, but it will have university status and it will be on a par with the new providers that are reaching levels of quality and student experience that are nothing in comparison to King’s

Then in relation to the LSE:

LSE, for example, quotes the situation that it often encounters, particularly overseas, where it is the London School of Economics: “So it’s a school?” “No it’s not, it’s a college”. “It’s a college?” “It’s not really, because it’s really a university”. For all practical purposes, it is a university. This sheds light on an anachronism.

Sometimes UCL and Kings are missed from lists of universities because they are not themselves universities.  It clearly it must irk some of the member institutions that new providers are universities and these internationally famous places are not.

There’s some fun to come – City will change back to being a university, but will it get its Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor back?  Perhaps this could allow other universities to federate – could branch campuses get university title and stay inside the group?  It’s unlikely that the second reading will repeat the major parliamentary discussions that happened in the past (except, perhaps, on the issue of representation on the board of trustees).  Meanwhile our last federal university will go on, with one fewer anachronism in its complex arrangements.

Update on Parliamentary ‘Progress’

The bill was introduced in the House of Lords, completing all its stages on 3 May 2018.  It had its first reading in the Commons on the same day, but its second reading has been postponed therefore as an objection is made each time its scheduled for business. In the Commons a private bill can pass second reading if uncontested.  It’s not entirely clear from the order paper, and the cry of ‘object’ isn’t recorded as against a MP, but Sir Christopher Chope is mentioned (he of the famous philosophy of objecting to private members bills on ‘principle’).  So far it’s been bounced on 14, 21 and 28 June and 3 and 10 July.  It will appear again on 17 July.  

Old Main

Campus masterplans now have to encompass the vast swathes of cities taken over by research universities. However, the majority of these sprawling sites started with either a single or a linked series of buildings. In the US these original buildings often go by the title ‘Old Main’, that single building that served as lecture rooms, laboratories and accommodation. I’m interested in how we’ve grown from these single buildings.

The 19th century saw an explosion of higher education, with teacher training colleges, art schools, technical colleges and university colleges being added to most towns and cities. The architectural choices reflect the conflicts played out in our older universities, with, in effect, a conversation bring played out between a number of architects. Although the new university colleges in London went for classical buildings (think UCL), the teacher training colleges went for low-key gothic.

The Government was not a major force in Higher Education in the 19th Century, but an exception was the commissioning of three colleges for Ireland. Here they set out clear requirements:

… a Great Hall for public and ceremonial purposes, a museum of natural history and geology, a library, a botanic garden, a chemical laboratory, a “cabinet” for philosophical and mechanical apparatus, six lecture theatres holding two hundred persons each, residences for the President and Vice-President, and a cloister for exercise in wet weather. (Blau, 1982, p13)

The Queens Colleges all went for gothic, with different architects borrowing to differing degrees from existing models (Queens Belfast got a copy of an Oxford tower).  Gothic was established as the main building style.  The majority of institutions started with temporary premises before moving into newly designed buildings.  This had the benefit of both accumulating the capital and gaining a clear sense of the requirements.  When Owens College had Alfred Waterhouse build a permanent base, they weren’t too far from the pattern laid out for the Queens Colleges.

The teacher training colleges were built on similar if smaller lines, but they included residential accommodation.   These buildings can be found at the heart of campuses in Chester, Chichester and Winchester.   Having got that first main building, a key choice fell to many growing institutions later on; to stay or to move.  The university colleges were often built in the city centre or amongst nearby housing, with very limited scope to expand.

sheffield 1921

University of Sheffield 1921 (Britain from Above)

Aerial photos show the contrast between the universities who stayed in their original sites and those that moved out to suburbs.  Contrast Sheffield with Birmingham – Joseph Chamberlain’s vision for transforming Mason’s College mean moving from its handsome building, part of the civic building complex, out to a newly designed campus.


University of Birmingham 1928 (Britain from Above)

The university colleges of Exeter and Nottingham had an extra incentive to move as their shared their buildings with other civic users: libraries and galleries.  Their parkland settings gave them room to expand.  For colleges that moved in the inter-war years, this proved a great opportunity – the demonstration of pride in education shown by the new buildings for Edge Hill is obvious.

Edge Hill

Edge Hill Training College 1935 (Britain from Above)

The challenge now is how to incorporate the old main building into a masterplan for a whole campus.  Often the buildings are, perhaps, rather eclipsed by newer bigger buildings.  Although the Great Hall might still have its place, the changing functions of the university mean some of the other uses of those first buildings have changed.   Perhaps we don’t value them as much as the US universities value their ‘Old Main’ buildings?

They are certainly a useful record of the development of our universities; their architecture records changing functions and approaches to education, and the style they were building shows an aspect of their changing nature of higher education – are we looking back to collegiate gothic, or to a form of classicism or now to an ultra-modernism.


Blau E 1982 Ruskinian Gothic – The Architecture of Dean & Woodward 1845-1861, Princeton, Princeton University Press

Pictures from https://britainfromabove.org.uk/en

The Snowflake Monster

The University is threatened by a monster, the snowflake monster. This is not a monster made of snowflakes – that derogatory term that is used for sensitive students who won’t tolerate debate and who need trigger warnings. It is the monster that uses the term ‘snowflake’ and it lurks in our media, all over the world.

There is a spectacular example of its work in a ludicrous story published by The Sun (I’d not normally refer to this media source, but it’s necessary to confront it). The Sun has discovered there is a ‘snowflake’ reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Except, as attested by the professors cited in the article, this isn’t news, this is what the novel is about. Surely the journalists must know this, they’ve clearly read the introduction to the novel (from where this story seems to originate from) and anyone who has read the book would know where the terror lies. So assuming that the journalists are not stupid, the first concern is that they think their readers are stupid.

This story presents universities as places where strange theories are hatched, where monsters are empathised with and accorded human rights. This is anathema to a part of the media whose stock trade is monsters. How dare universities teach such stuff.

This is the backlash that paints liberal arts courses as useless, that sees legislators try to de-fund humanities research and attempts to de-legitimise the university itself. The very business of contesting truth, the heart of the university’s business, is ridiculed. Common sense tells you that Frankenstein is about a monster killing people, not about what it means to be human. Universities must be ridiculous places if they hold such notions.

Each stupid piece, even if on the most stupid premise, chips away at universities. This nonsense in the Sun isn’t itself a big deal, it’s so obviously stupid. But it’s only one of today’s stories. That’s the bigger problem.

An Academic Registrar’s Challenges (Twenty Years ago)

1998 has many parallels with 2018, at least as far as higher education policy and practice goes.  I’ve had a look through my notebooks for the first term of the new year and we face some of the same issues, but there are some contrasts as well.  As a young academic registrar, there was a sense of precariousness, some of that connected with the issues facing the college but also the  sector acting on the Dearing Report, and a government starting to hit its stride.  There was tension about HEFCE’s new funding methodology, which would see institutions migrate to within 5% of a standard unit of resource measured by FTEs, which were controlled by the MASN.

Strategic Challenges

There were two specific challenges facing King Alfred’s College: the termination of its nursing contract and the conversion of the neighbouring La Sainte Union College into the New College of the University of Southampton.

The move of nursing education into universities is a fascinating story, and it should be told properly.  King Alfred’s had merged with its local nurse training providers and had a substantial number of students on nursing and midwifery programmes (I remember vividly my first midwifery validation event – which prepared me well for later encounters).  A bidding exercise had been run and many smaller providers had lost their contracts to offer nursing and midwifery courses, including King Alfred’s.  In early 1998 the college started to plan to phase out a third of its income.  The contract was taught out and a lasting memory is how the staff involved in the provision handled this situation with the utmost professionalism.

Another challenge came from the college’s validating partner: the University of Southampton had ‘merged’ with La Sainte Union College (LSU). LSU had succumbed to a second poor Ofsted inspection, it had not diversified sufficiently to survive without its teacher training contact and it was merging with its validating university: Southampton.  This was fine, but Southampton had come up with a new vision for LSU as ‘New College’, to act as a new access part of the university, combining with its adult education department.  For King Alfred’s, the potential revitalisation of LSU as a part of its validating university was a major concern.  It also forced a volte face on the part of Southampton who’d been looking to avoid ‘unhelpful competition’ between members of its validating ‘family’ but now found itself trying to compete.

Lifelong Learning

The Dearing report had positioned higher education firmly in a lifelong learning context – meeting the needs of the learning society.  The college had extensive CPD offering for teachers and a long established part-time evening degree, but was responding to HEFCE funding streams to engage adult learners.

Notes from a conference in March 1998 show that developing a culture of lifelong learning in the university was seen as the key challenge.  The Government were very enthusiastic but the sector would need to find ways of engaging as it developed its green paper into a framework for action.  Tessa Blackstone told the conference that universities should develop partnerships, have coherent strategies for access and develop plans for more adult lifelong learning.  Credit accumulation should be used to help students move between institutions.

At this stage the University for Industry was a key part of the government’s plans, with learning accounts enabling students to access short courses.  There was even mention of graduate apprenticeships.   Corporate learning would be important, and Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, the ‘vice-chancellor’ of the ‘BAE University’, provided information on their virtual university – part of their business strategy to enhance their international competitiveness, covering qualifications from HNDs to PhDs.

Working parties

If some have measured out their lives with coffee spoons, the life of an academic registrar is measured out by working parties.  In addition to the committees and standing groups, I appear to have attended specific groups on regulations, IT systems, graduation, continuing education, and tuition fees (we were still billing LEAs – but planning was underway for the new £1000 fees).

One set of working parties was concentrating on the future of the college, preparing a plan to deal with those strategic challenges, particularly focused on the prospect of applying for degree awarding powers.


Despite lots of efforts (including Bob Fryer who later headed it) Southampton’s New College never took off and the old LSU site was sold for housing.  BAE never developed their corporate university.  King Alfred’s got it’s degree awarding powers and is now the University of Winchester.

The Commuting Universities Blues- the solution is song…

One of the greatest concerns for the modern universities was to gain acceptance from public opinion as true universities.  They had many disadvantages; they often taught vocational subjects, had a poor stock of buildings in unglamorous cities but the greatest concern was that their students were commuting and therefore there wasn’t the esprit de corps exhibited in the old universities.   The provision of residences became a high priority, enabling the modern universities to compete for students.

This was between the wars.

The Great War saw the foundation of the modern British university system, with the UGC distributing government grants, the CVCP co-ordinating universities and the NUS building an internationalist movement while arguing for improvements for students. The UGC and NUS agreed that the residential model was best.

Students’ Unions provided the common rooms, societies and sports in the new, non-collegiate, universities. The majority of students in the civic universities lived either at home or in digs, rather than in halls.


FullSizeRender (27)

One of the prominent activities was singing.  The Leeds University Song Book is an example of how those modern universities tried to build up their spirits.  The preface explains:

With the advent of the Song Book, the hope grows strong that our University may develop a corporate musical spirit well befitting such an institution.  Some of the songs in this book are very robust: in singing them it is hoped that students will feel the inspiration of comradeship…

The Committee commend the book, hopeful that ‘our University may at last become a University of Song’.  There are five sections: Patriotic and National Songs; Yorkshire Songs; General University Songs (including Departmental Songs); Students’ Songs and Hymns.  The oldest of the local songs dates from 1886. sung in the early days of the student association of the then Yorkshire College.

The committee notes the enthusiasm of Professor Garstang in writing songs, so we’ll start with his Boating Song (which although he wrote some music can also be sung to the Eton Boating Song).

Cambridge has her Granta
Oxford, Isis Fair,
Leeds, with an enchanter,
Still might row the Aire;
But until he comes, in spite of banter,
We must go elsewhere!
Until he comes, in spite of banter,
We must go elsewhere

As an example of a ‘departmental song’ here is the Song of the Fuel Department (by Allan C Monkhouse)

Now listen all ye students who gather round to hear
The song of the fuel Department, a name to us so dear
Its work is quite stupendous, and if you’ll come along,
We’ll tell you all about it in our departmental song.

From sim, dark, distant ages of palaeozoic life
To present day conditions with all their stress and strife,
Our fuels have been building up until this day they stand
As the power of the nations who have them in their land.

There are equivalent songs about the joys of Geology, History, Mining, Physics, Chemistry and Maths.   The songs show that the healthy inter-departmental rivalry that still plays out in calls for differential fees.  The ‘University Songs’ show their pride in their alma mater, but perhaps with that sense of their technological status and what Flexner would complain was the service-station model of higher education.

Do you yearn to know more of the Arts and the Sciences.
Icelandic verbs or textile appliances?
If in leather or medicine or steam your alliances,
Presto, you’re served while you wait, up –
Up, pup, pup, at the Varsity,
Hup, pup, Kumati, Kuamti, Grrr, Mah
Ha-gi, Hai Ha-gi,
Now for the last bit, Hurrah


FullSizeRender (28)

‘Ku-ma-ti’ is the ‘war-chant’ of the university.  Historians of the university are unsure exactly how it was adopted, but it appears to have a link to Maori.  Another song picks up the theme:

Tho’ some Varsities be older
Being establish’d long ago
By the glamour of antiquity surrounded;
Yet we’re just as proud in Yorkshire,
And have many things to show,
to prove to you our pride is fully grounded

So Ku-Ma-ti! For Leeds and its Varsity;
Its medicine, science, arts and law,
Its technicalities galore,
The students and the training corps,
So Ku-ma-ti for Leeds

So, perhaps one part of the answer for commuting students is a return to the song book.  It will combine pride in your university, however vocational its studies might be, and would come with helpful patriotic songs (having access to the words to Rule Britannia and Land of Hope of Glory must help with our new confident global status).

The Song Book is a reminder that we’ve been through many of our current anxieties before.   Of course, communal singing isn’t really going to be a solution.  Especially if its a series of songs about how hard study is in your department.

John Major and Academic Drift

The binary line was abolished in 1992.  A deliberate policy of having two sectors of higher education was ended and the universities and polytechnics were brought together under a single funding agency.  A part of that process was the agreement that polytechnics could apply for university title.  As I have noted before, somehow this is still controversial.  Papers in the National Archives show something of how that policy developed.

John Major became prime minister at the end of November 1990.  His first Education Secretary was Kenneth Clark who, after settling in, submitted a paper for discussion on long term issues in education policy responding to the PM’s own stated priorities.  This paper includes the following section on Higher Education.

The natural evolution of the reforms for Higher Education contained in the 1988 Act is to bring together the two Higher Education sectors – Universities, and Polytechnics and Colleges – under a single Funding Council. That will ensure that the system can continue to expand cost-effectively and without artificial barriers. It means the end of the so-called “binary line”. Most polytechnics will want to call themselves universities, and the time has come to allow that but we shall need to ensure that the diversity of provision in HE does not suffer as a result. I am quite sure that the change will not result in any diminution in standards in our excellent higher education system. We will need to ensure that by good quality assurance control arrangements and seek to preserve the diverse and distinctive contribution of the universities and polytechnics.

There are plenty of complications – there is an awkward Scotland/Wales/N.Ireland dimension. We shall have to insist on robust quality assurance arrangements. Research funding will have to be handled carefully. I expect to be able to circulate proposals on all these matters to colleagues for discussion in March, with a view to a White Paper in the early summer. This would be a topic for legislation early in the Parliament, a commitment to that effect would, I think, be widely welcomed.
(Clarke, 1991)

Clarke continued, with a theme that we would return to:

We could also use that opportunity to add privately funded tuition fees to my existing powers to make student loans available for maintenance. My opinion, however, is against that – you will remember how unpopular it was with our colleagues in the House of Commons when Keith Joseph first suggested it some 5 years ago. I do not believe that it is possible to set up a sensible and fair market in higher education tuition fees. I recognise that the alternative is the provision of more public funds to finance the further expansion of Higher Education
(Clarke 1991)

One of threats that the vice-chancellors had been using was to discuss top-up fees as a way of maintaining the unit of resource in the face of continued ‘efficiency gains’ from the government.

Academic Drift

By March 1991 the ramifications of uniting the sector were being worked through.  The briefing note for John Major before a meeting with Ken Clarke stated:

…then polytechnics will wish to take on university status. Though attractive to them, it is not necessarily advantageous in a wider sense. Courses could become more academically orientated. It is no means obvious that is best for the economy.
(Potter, 1991a)

The Civil Service had first worried about ‘academic drift’ in the early 1960s and had influenced Crosland to create the polytechnic sector in part to prevent it.  Now officials at No10 were concerned again.

After the meeting with Clarke, John Major’s Private Secretary wrote to the DES.

First, if Polytechnics are to be able to take on university status, it will be important to ensure that they cannot shift their course mix or research programme to favour more academic subjects. … the Prime Minister would be grateful for your Secretary of State’s specific assurance that the system in place will prevent an undesirable shift in the allocation of teaching or research resources.
(Potter, 1991b)

FullSizeRender (25)

The DES wrote back, with a ‘satisfactory response’ giving the appropriate assurances.  Interestingly the DES thought that student demand would prevent the polytechnics offering more academic courses (Ratcliff 1991).

FullSizeRender (26)

The DES noted that if necessary the Secretary of State could require the funding councils to use those funding incentives.  The file contains letters from other ministries commenting on the developing white paper.  Michael Howard (Secretary of State for Employment) endorsed the approach, stating:

We are agreed that parity of esteem between vocational and academic forms of education is important; this is no less so for higher education than at lower levels.  Kenneth’s proposals, in aiming to give polytechnics equal status with universities, should help that objective.
(Howard, 1991)

David Mellor (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) noted that removing the binary line would open up the universities to the ‘full force of competition from the polytechnics and colleges’ but noting the concern  that the polytechnics could adopt ‘some of the less attractive features of the present universities’ and that must be resisted very strongly.  (Mellor, 1991)

Policy Outcomes 

These debates, early in a Prime Minister’s term of office (framed around the Classless Society), are still relevant today.  The issue of vocational vs academic and whether some institutions should pursue one or the other remains live.  So too does the role of competition – although it could be noted that the expansion of the old universities has now moved forward in the last few years as the temptation of £9000 fees without a student number cap kicked in.     There are signs that the government in 1991 thought that its new regulators, the higher education councils, would manage the sector through funding incentives – an option that is harder for government in 2018.   Funding, however, remains live.  Ken Clarke wasn’t convinced that a market in fees could work.  Clearly one of the issues for the ‘major review’ of tertiary funding will be differentiated fees; a major issue for our post-binary line sector.


Clarke K (1991) Education Policy – Long Term Minute 18 February 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Howard, M, (1991) Future Structure of UK Higher Education: The Binary Line Letter 28 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Mellor D (1991) White Paper: Higher Education Letter 20 May 1991 TNA PREM 19/3296
Potter B [BHP] (1991a) Bilateral with the Education Secretary Briefing 6 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Potter B, (1991b) EA Higher Education – The Binary Line Letter 26 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294
Ratcliff, J (1991) EA Higher Education – The Binary Line Letter 28 March 1991 TNA PREM 19/3294