Britain’s best universities are second only to America’s in the world, thanks to their legal and financial autonomy from government
“More will mean worse,” Kingsley Amis wrote in 1960, lamenting the planned growth of British higher education. Yet he was wrong. Today, following a huge expansion in the numbers of staff, students and institutions, British universities vie with American universities to top every international league table. More has meant better. Why?
To be fair to Amis, the expansion of British higher education was not rooted propitiously. The expansion was, in fact, born of political panic out of intellectual error, and its immediate precipitant was, of all things, the launch of Russia’s Sputnik, in 1957.
It seems odd today, but half a century ago people respected the Soviet Union’s economy. The USSR’s companies were run by engineers; Russia had substituted central planning for the pricing mechanism; and its government invested vastly in education and research. People supposed that such a rational economy would overtake the market economies of the West. So in 1956 Harold Wilson, the Shadow Chancellor, claimed that “Russia’s industrial challenge may well dominate the world economic scene” and in that same year the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, said those countries “with the best systems of education will win”.
A year later Sputnik — the world’s first artificial satellite — was launched. It circulated the globe for three months, it emitted Dr Who-like radio bleeps, and it provoked international panic: the Russians had won the space race! In the words of Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi rocketeer who was to lead much of America’s space programme: “Sputnik triggered a period of self-appraisal rarely equalled in modern times. Overnight, it became popular to question the bulwarks of our society; our public education system, our industrial strength, international policy, defence strategy and forces, the capability of our science and technology. Even the moral fibre of our people.”
The US responded in 1958 by creating Nasa (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and by passing the National Defense Education Act, which directed vast sums of money at the universities. The British responded analogously in 1958 by inter alia announcing the creation of the seven, so-called Shakespearean, new universities of Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick, York and East Anglia. But would the seven be enough to match the Marxist economic threat? The government feared not, so in 1961 it commissioned Lord Robbins, of the London School of Economics, to justify the creation of yet more: it was 50 years ago this autumn that his committee published.
The Robbins Report famously asserted that university places “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment”, which seems unexceptionable except that Robbins’s definition of those so qualified encompassed all those who had passed two A levels at grade E. Robbins complained that whereas 90 per cent of all school-leavers who had attained at least three A levels were embarking on full-time higher education, only 62 per cent of school-leavers with two A levels were entering it; and of that 62 per cent most were training to be teachers, so only 22 per cent of school-leavers with two A levels were actually proceeding to university. Robbins condemned that figure of 22 per cent as reflecting “increased competition for entry to university”. It was, he wrote, “most undesirable that this [competition] should increase…In fact it should be reduced.”
And he reduced it. At his instigation the ten colleges of advanced technology (CATs) were converted into universities (of Aston, Bath, Bradford, Brunel, Cardiff, City, Loughborough, Salford and Surrey; Chelsea is now part of King’s College London) yet — on Robbins’s own figures — 25 per cent of the students admitted to the CATs had no A levels, only Ordinary National Certificates, and a further 15 per cent were admitted with only one A level.
Robbins predicted that our huge 1960s expansion of university places would stimulate economic growth. It didn’t, and in September 1976 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in panic, turned back from a scheduled flight from Heathrow Airport, urgently to negotiate an enormous loan from — and our submission to the direction of — the International Monetary Fund. This was national humiliation, which had been adumbrated in 1971 by Shirley Williams, Labour’s former Secretary of State for Education and Science, when she warned that “for the scientists the party is over”.
But the immediate precipitant of the UK’s university expansion — Sputnik — had never reflected Soviet technological superiority: it had always been a tribute to America’s free market science. Space was conquered not by the USSR but by a professor at Clark College, Massachusetts, Robert “Moonie” Goddard (1882-1945).
Goddard, whose research was supported by the Guggenheims, had by 1925 created the world’s first liquid-fuelled rocket. By 1932 he had developed a gyro stabiliser, and by 1937 one of his rockets had climbed 9,000 feet. He was on his way to launching the world’s first artificial satellite when the Second World War intervened, forcing his redeployment into developing the bazooka and other military materiel. The resumption of peace coincided with his death.
But his space research did not die with him because, as Wernher von Braun acknowledged, much of the technology that underpinned the V1 and V2 rockets that von Braun built for Hitler — and which adumbrated the rockets he was to build for Nasa — had simply been stolen, without the payment of licence fees, from Goddard’s 200 or more patents. So valuable, indeed, were these patents that one of Nasa’s first acts was to pay Goddard’s widow $1 million for them. Equally, the Soviet Union developed Sputnik in large part by its own theft of Goddard’s intellectual property. Ironically, therefore, the event that pushed the West into copying Russia’s “superior” university model was based on one of the West’s achievements.
So why are Britain’s universities today so good? If Robbins was so flawed in his analysis, why do Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College jostle America’s Ivy League in the international league tables?
One answer is that almost every nation has vastly expanded its universities, with the same consequential decline in standards. A university education is a perquisite of wealth, and over the last 200 years the GDPs per capita of the established industrialised nations have been growing at 2 to 3 per cent per year (newly industrialising nations have grown even faster, as “catch-up” is relatively easy). As the middle classes, globally, have enriched themselves, so they have demanded higher education for their children. The growth of Britain’s universities has thus not damaged their relative standing internationally, which has grown too.
The factor that has propelled the British universities to excellence has been their unusual governance. Only the universities of the UK, Australasia and in some cases America are legally private.
The Western world’s first universities (Bologna, Padua, Montpellier et alia) emerged around the Mediterranean nearly 1,000 years ago. They were originally private, independent corporations run, incidentally, by the students themselves. The next, northern, wave of universities (Paris, Oxford, Cambridge et alia) were also private and independent, run in their case by the academics. But thereafter the anglophone and continental universities’ trajectories diverged. On the continent, thanks to Inquisition and absolutism, the universities were nationalised: to generalise across the different jurisdictions, European academics today are civil servants and their rectors are appointed by grace of the minister of education.
But the independence of the English universities from royal interference was guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of 1689, whose relevant article was inspired by Protestant outrage over James II’s replacement of the president and 25 fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford, with Catholics. The Americans had their equivalent demarche in the Dartmouth College vs Woodward case of 1819, when the Supreme Court determined that state governments could not forcibly nationalise America’s private universities (now the Ivy League).
And because the anglophone universities are private, they flourish. Consider money. A major determinant of quality in higher education is money, but when governments monopolise a function then, in the absence of competition, they will underfund it — their clients have nowhere else to go. As the European Commission recognised in its 2003 publication Role of the Universities in the Europe of Knowledge: “American universities have far more substantial means than than those of European universities — on average, two to five times higher per student…The gap stems primarily from the low level of private funding of higher education in Europe.”
Unlike the nationalised universities of continental Europe, American universities have been free to charge fees and to solicit donations. And the American pattern is evolving in Britain.
Under the Conservative governments of 1979 to 1997 our universities were starved of government support: their staff-to-student ratios halved and their infrastructure rotted. Yet British universities are private charities which, until 1919, had also been independent of government funding. It was only because the Great War — by depriving the universities of fee income and destroying their endowments by inflation — so bankrupted them that the government was driven to create the University Grants Committee to support them financially.
But after 1919 Whitehall increasingly used its funding to direct the universities, treating them as if they were in the public sector. By the early part of this millennium these private charities had had enough. Their escape was signposted by the LSE which, in 2001, outraged by an intrusive regulatory regime, threatened to go wholly independent of the state. And because the LSE’s income comes largely from foreign students, its threat was credible: the government surrendered and remodelled the regulations.
Thus inspired, the vice-chancellors of the leading universities then demanded the right to charge significant fees of their students. Tony Blair obliged, allowing them in 2004 to charge home undergraduates up to £3,000 per annum. The policy was opposed by the Tories, who thus revealed themselves, not for the first time, to be unprincipled and cowardly. And opportunistic: when they returned to power they promptly raised the fees to £9,000 a year. Yet in consequence British universities today are spruce, well-funded and well-subscribed.
Robbins wanted to remould our universities on the inferior model of the state-owned universities of continental Europe. He was contemptuous of our low wastage rate (the percentage of students who fail to complete their courses) which ran at 14 per cent as opposed to some 50 per cent in Europe: “A wastage rate of 14 per cent in universities as selective as ours is nothing to boast of.” Yet the joy of the UK university is that it is an alma mater that, thanks to selectivity, admits students to a community. On the continent, students attend vast, impersonal, interchangeable degree factories that churn students out relentlessly. Despite the wealth of France, Germany and Italy, too many of their universities are unattractive places in which to study.
Ultimately, Robbins was undone by his success: by so expanding the universities he outran the ability of the government to fund them properly. Empowered by their legal autonomy under the Bill of Rights, the universities responded by wresting greater financial autonomy from government.
Today, British vice-chancellors look not to Europe but to America for their models, recognising our common heritage in the Bill of Rights rather than in continental absolutism — a common heritage that has placed us jointly at the top of the international university league tables.