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Higher Education in the United Kingdom since 1945

Telling the history of higher education in one volume is a tall order, says Geoffrey Alderman

To tell, in a single volume, the story of (as Malcolm Tight puts it) "the development of a sector as complex as higher education in the UK" over the past 60 or so years is "an interesting, perhaps foolhardy undertaking". The author who sets out to meet such a challenge faces two immediate problems.

The first lies in the sheer weight of source material. Tight has chosen to confine himself to printed sources in the public domain, with the (inevitable) result that certain basic themes in his story remain unexplored - for instance the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the Council for National Academic Awards, and the secret monthly meetings in 1996 of the oddly named Joint Planning Group, whose membership did so much to destroy robust, self-regulated quality assurance in British higher education.

Even had he not chosen to investigate the archival sources (and I would have gladly lent him my admittedly incomplete set of confidential JPG papers), surely Tight could have conducted structured interviews, as many of the players in these two dramas - the CNAA and the JPG - are still very much alive.

The second problem is one of choice: which themes shall be chronicled, and which shall be omitted? The main outlines of the tale Tight has to tell are well known; he has done as well as he might in the telling. He is right to downplay the importance of the Robbins report (many of whose recommendations were never carried out), and to stress, instead, the impact of the Anderson inquiry, published three years earlier, into student funding.

But to my mind one of the most damaging inquiries into higher education over the last half-century was the Jarratt report published in 1985. To devote just four pages to a mischievous and malevolent investigation (which, inter alia, popularised if it did not invent the notion that students are "customers", which foisted on the sector the delusion that factory-floor "performance indicators" are entirely suited to a higher-education setting, and which led to the abolition of academic tenure and the concomitant triumph of managerialism in the academy) is - indeed - "foolhardy".

Jarratt was self-inflicted. The inquiry was not a government creation. It was established by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. How well do I remember them, running around like a clutch of headless chickens, trying to fool us youngsters that Maggie Thatcher would love us if we acquiesced in Jarratt, and might even restore some of the cuts she had so savagely and so enthusiastically imposed!

Jarratt was betrayal from within. So was the JPG a decade later. Tenure was abolished with the willing participation of those who then led our universities.

Many, indeed, of the wounds from which the sector now suffers were entirely self-inflicted. Sadly, none of this individual animus and impact comes through in Tight's account. Committees and commissions are not impersonal machines. Their motive force derives from those who populate them, and steer their deliberations. This sense of the personal is entirely lacking from Tight's narrative, no more so than in his treatment of quality and standards issues. Yes, the murder of the Higher Education Quality Council and its replacement by the Quality Assurance Agency was important, obviously. But so was the personal approach brought to the work of the QAA by its first chief executive, John Randall, whose name appears nowhere in Tight's account.

It was, perhaps, unfortunate that Tight should have completed his work in 2008, just when the current, much-publicised parliamentary inquiry into standards, quality and the student experience was getting under way.

But surely he and his publisher could have agreed to insert a few indicative, critical paragraphs on the topic. Instead, we are treated to a series of bland statements about the standards debate, with no systematic treatment of the external-examiner system, and no treatment at all of the plague of academic dishonesty.

Tight asks "Have standards changed?" His simplistic answer - "They have probably gone up, or gone down, in some subjects and in some places" - simply won't do.

The work has other idiosyncrasies. Tight writes, on page 131, of the Association of University Teachers as if it still exists. Of its successor, the University and College Union, there is no mention at all. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator is ignored.

He offers an account of the development and reform (two decades ago) of the PhD without telling us that this reform was accompanied by the quite unnecessary requirement that doctoral students first obtain a taught masters qualification - unnecessary because, well into the 1960s, the bachelors degree provided a wholly adequate platform from which to embark on doctoral-level research.

To assert that Buckingham "is the only UK-based university ... that is privately owned" is misleading if not downright wrong. To characterise Buckingham's success (top in the National Student Survey three years running) as "highly debatable" is outrageous.

Higher Education in the United Kingdom since 1945

By Malcolm Tight

Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press 288pp, £80.00

ISBN 9780335216420

Published 1 June 2009

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