8 March 2012

Times Higher: Thoroughly entitled

Professor Michael Driscoll argues in today’s (8 March) Times Higher that twenty years on, post-1992s have proved beyond doubt they are worthy of the university moniker.

Thoroughly entitled
Twenty years ago this week, the 1992 Further and Higher Education Acts for England and Scotland were given Royal Assent. This legislation, passed by John Major’s Conservative government, allowed the Privy Council to approve institutions of higher education as competent to grant taught and research degrees in their own right, and to decide which could use the word “university”.

By the end of 1992, 38 institutions had achieved university title. Today, that number has grown to 63 – and these modern universities have proved to be game-changers. Through a determination to deliver opportunity and excellence, they have expanded access to higher education; promoted world-leading research; built dynamic links with business, often in emerging areas of the economy; and responded to the changing needs of public services.

Contrary to what some sceptics believe, the award of university title was no giveaway. Universities that have gained the award since 1992 have had to meet the same quality standards as their older counterparts. There was also good reason why so many institutions were awarded university title so quickly after the 1992 Acts were passed: the reality – recognised by some wiser heads in the Conservative government of the time – was that these universities were already teaching thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students and had highly qualified academic staff.

Many modern universities are not the higher education upstarts that some would claim. A considerable number have their roots in 19th-century movements to expand opportunities for education. Some were supported by public subscription and kindly benefactors. Others were linked with particular disciplines such as design, the arts and engineering, or professions such as teacher training. The seven working men who established the Preston Institute for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in 1828, funded by the Temperance Society and commemorated in a plaque at what is now the University of Central Lancashire, would undoubtedly be amazed that they founded a university which now literally spans the world in a true diffusion of knowledge.

Nonetheless, the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Acts retains a special significance. They, at long last, provided proper recognition of these universities, their staff, students and graduates.

While the debate about social mobility continues to rage, no one can deny that it is modern universities that have opened their doors to thousands of students who are the “first in their family” to study for a degree. To their absolute credit, these universities have been prepared to admit students with varied qualifications rather than just A levels.

They have also led the way in offering opportunities to students of all ages, providing full-time, flexible and workplace study. This has enabled new generations of students to achieve honours degrees and other qualifications that have provided the UK with a rich talent base. On an individual level, this has also changed the lives of millions who, in previous generations, would have been denied opportunities notwithstanding their abilities.

This is why it is still surprising that, from time to time, governments and MPs focus their concerns on a small number of universities, ignoring the students and graduates of modern universities who are living and working in every single UK constituency. If parliamentary or ministerial duties take them overseas, they are likely to meet members and officials from governments who have either first or postgraduate degrees from a modern university. The current prime minister’s wife Samantha Cameron, highly successful in her professional life, studied at what is now the University of the West of England.

The anniversary of the 1992 Acts is not a valediction but a chance to look forward. Neither the current nor any future government can afford to base its policies on a narrow view of which universities count in British society. It is time to accept that modern universities have proved their worth, not only to higher education but also to our society and the economy.

Michael Driscoll is Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University and interim chair of million+.