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  • University to Uni: The Politics of Higher Education in England since 1944
  • Roger Watson
University to Uni: The Politics of Higher Education in England since 1944 Robert Stevens London: Politico's, 2003, 196 pages, £15.99 (softcover)

This is an eminently readable book from an author who is both a British and United States citizen, a former Professor of Law at Yale, Chancellor of the University of California and Master of Pembroke College, University of Oxford, England. As such, he is uniquely qualified to write this book which is subtitled "The politics of higher education in England since 1944" for both a British and North American readership.

The book is organised in two parts: 1944-1997 and 1997-2003. There are 10 short chapters liberally supported by footnotes and the book is completed by an Epilogue and an Afternote. The contents are taken from lectures by the author and nobody develops a reputation as a public speaker without eloquence and something controversial to say. The book is both eloquent and controversial and, despite widely held interviews with leading senior academics and politicians, the author admits that his views may be in opposition to most of them.

To understand British universities is to understand the British class system and much of what has motivated educational policies of successive and recent British governments of both Conservative and Labour persuasions. I use the word 'persuasions' advisedly because the present Labour government owes a great deal more of its New Labour ideology to Thatcherism - the right wing Prime Minister who was aligned with Ronald Reagan - than to the traditional socialist roots of its party. British universities have been the focus of a social experiment on a grand scale which, depending upon your viewpoint, has succeeded greatly or failed miserably. Far more working class people now attend British universities than ever (success), but the proportion of people from poorer background to those from better off backgrounds has hardly shifted over the last century (failure).

Stevens' book is not an historical account of British universities and this is manifest in the fact that that he only takes two chapters to arrive at 1979 and the first Thatcher government that saw the Conservatives in power for 18 years. The Conservative years ended with the victory of Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997. Stevens examines the fortunes of British universities under both Conservative and New Labour rule. The most visible outcome of the years of Conservative rule, ending with Prime Minister John Major, was the doubling of the number of British universities in 1992. This took place by ending the so called "binary line" whereby the funding of universities and those other institutions of higher and further (as opposed to higher) education were kept separate. Many institutions were involved in providing higher education in technical subjects and these were called the polytechnics. However, their funding from government did not include research. After 1992 all the polytechnics and some institutions of further education became universities but the funding for the university sector was not increased concomitantly and the unit of funding per student and research funding per academic fell dramatically and has never recovered. British universities were now plunged into a collective financial crisis. With the exception of the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the first pre-Reformation [End Page 361] University of Edinburgh, very few other British universities had legacies to tide them over. British university students have not been expected to pay for their education - until now - and they show their gratitude by not returning anything to the institutions where they were educated.

Furthermore, since 1997, the New Labour government has aimed to have 50% of British school leavers attend university. This was a target for 2010 but it is unlikely to be met and is currently only running at about 30%. Nevertheless, the number of students going to universities is increasing and the number of universities continues to increase; from approximately 80 at the end of 1992 to nearly 100 in 2003. The financial crisis deepens and there is talk of university closures and even of a return, within the university system, to a "binary line", with only a few universities...


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pp. 361-362
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