The University Grants Committee (UGC) was created in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when the penny began to drop in Britain that universities were fundamental to what wasn’t then called the knowledge economy. For most of the twentieth century, the UGC and its successor bodies sought to guide the development of a high-achieving university system by funding institutional development and, at various times, using its funding role to orchestrate system planning. As UK higher education is now generally regarded as a world leader, you could argue that the UGC and its successors did a pretty good job.
Their role began to change from the 1980s onwards, when market mechanisms came to be seen as answers to public sector resource allocation questions. A quasi-market methodology was developed by the Higher Education Funding Council (the UGC’s successor from 1992), moving during the 1990s from funding institutions as such to buying services from them (teaching and research) on behalf of notional customers. Few people in universities at the time noticed the significance of this seemingly technical change – universities still received public money as a block grant, to spend as they wished – but the change was nevertheless profound.
The November 2015 higher education Green Paper, Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, perhaps marks the completion of the shift in government thinking (not just the current government) from seeing universities as significant, independent institutions in civil society to least-cost service providers. The Green Paper proposes that HEFCE merges with other agencies to become the Office for Students (OfS), with the task of “explicitly promot[ing] the student interest, and approach[ing] higher education regulation through a student lens.” [p58]. But student interests are seen here entirely in consumer terms, believing that they seek “better value for money…accessible and clear information to judge teaching quality” [p18]: I expect that Jo Johnson, the present minister, had value for money in mind when he chose Balliol College Oxford over the alternatives on offer. Employers, meanwhile, in a telling industrial metaphor, “need access to a pipeline of graduates with the skills they need” [p18]. The emancipatory model of higher education, the idea of the student embarking on a voyage of intellectual discovery and self-realisation, is not apparent here.
The variable, contested nature of the government’s desired higher education landscape of the future is apparent in the detail (14 pages of it) in which the Green Paper examines the changes needed to allow new private-sector providers to enter the system and to exit from it (perhaps along with some old providers – or “universities” as we generally call them). This is not, I think, what the 1904 Royal Charter of Leeds University (to take a random example) had in mind when it began: “There shall be from henceforth for ever in Our said City of Leeds a university…”
There’s an irony here in government wanting a more changeable, commercially-minded higher education sector, and at the same time wanting more of a top-down say in the details of how it operates. The proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF – get used to an acronym that you’ll be hearing a lot more of) is explicitly about culture change in higher education – it should “change providers’ behaviour” [p19]. Does BIS lecture BAE Systems, say, on its culture and tell it, school report-style, that there is “room for improvement”  in its internal processes? For people in higher education who still bear the scars of the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) regime from the mid-1990s, the proposals for TEF will seem scarily familiar, with its search for “teaching excellence” as judged by a “panel of independent experts” [p31]. TQA turned into a (largely pointless) major industry, as there was always some extra piece of information needed – and, because universities employ lots of smart people, once the rules of the game became known, most people got top marks in the test. As the late Yogi Berra might have said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”