Higher education: how financial strategy took centre stage

Paul Temple.

Government decisions about student fee levels, research funding and all the other aspects of higher education finance, and how individual institutions respond to these policy choices, now form a central aspect of the study of higher education, in the UK and elsewhere.

But it was not always so: and one of the scholars who was largely responsible for bringing these matters centre-stage academically in the UK was Professor Emeritus Gareth Williams, who was honoured at a seminar held at the IOE this week. The event was structured around the book of essays written to celebrate his contribution to the study of the economics of higher education. The international significance of Gareth’s work is demonstrated by the fact that authors were from the United States, Germany and Canada, as well as from the UK.

As he remarks in his own commentary, Gareth began his work as an economist just at the time – the mid-1950s – when the economics of education was emerging as a distinct topic for study. He joined the IOE in 1984, after working for the OECD and then at the LSE. The Institute had by then become a leading centre for research in the economics of education under the leadership of Mark Blaug (1927-2011), a pioneering scholar in the field with an international reputation, who had joined it in 1962, leaving in 1984 as Gareth arrived. Continuing this tradition, Gareth subsequently created the Centre for Higher Education Studies, and his 1992 book, Changing Patterns of Finance in Higher Education, set a benchmark for the study of university finance at institutional level, a matter that had previously not received close intellectual analysis.

As Gareth notes in the new book, his timing allowed him to chart the rise of the university finance director from the role of “bean counter”, as one of them put it to him in the 1992 book, to being next only to the vice-chancellor in their influence on university strategy.

Today, with undergraduates in English universities paying tuition fees of around £9,000 a year, and with often quite technical issues around university finance having become highly salient matters in national politics, few would question the central role of financial strategy and management in university affairs. Yet, as the “bean counter” remark suggests, this is a relatively recent development, as a glance at any book about UK higher education written before the 1990s will confirm.

Gareth’s scholarly task has been to track, and to conceptualise, the changing role of the state and of institutional responses to changed state policies on higher education finance, notably through the introduction of quasi-markets (that is, when governments allocate resources as if they were buying services in a normal market) and similar mechanisms to allocate resources both between and within institutions. These apparently rather dry, technical issues, unnoticed by most academics when they were introduced, have had profound effects on just about all aspects of university life. It is now difficult to recall that, not very long ago, university funding was based on completely different understandings. Although Gareth’s work has focused on the UK, there have been movements in similar directions in other countries, and Gareth has contributed to our understanding of this developing international pattern.

Gareth’s friends and colleagues, from the UK and around the world, were delighted to have had the opportunity to honour a scholar who has contributed so much to our field of study.

Photo of Glasgow University by Ramsay Thomson https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Valuing Higher Education: An appreciation of the work of Gareth Williams, edited by Ronald Barnett, Paul Temple and Peter Scott, is published by Trentham Books, UCL IOE Press,2016.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Education policy, Further higher and lifelong education, International comparisons

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