Healy, M. 2020. Marx and Digital Machines: Alienation, Technology, Capitalism.

London: University, of Westminster Press. DOI:

The HE landscape internationally has been shaped by practices such as standardisation and benchmarking, ranking league tables (where universities compete on both national and international levels), audit technologies, research assessment exercises, and increased class sizes, all affecting the way scholars work. Working under the auspices of the UK Office for Students, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is responsible for conducting random reviews of higher education providers in England to check quality and it has published subject benchmarks that describe the nature of study and the academic standards expected of graduates in specific subject areas. Adherence to these benchmarks is enforced through the publication of QAA Reports for HE institutes following a random inspection. The QAA is a member of international quality assurance agencies such as the European Association for Quality Assurance in HE (ENQA) and the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in HE (INQAAHE ). These institutions seek to shoehorn all institutes of HE into the same relatively narrow standardised prescriptive that has embraced the commodification of HE (Saunders and Blanco Ramirez 2017).


Other contradictory pressures arising from research imperatives, which undermine traditional approaches to scholarly activity, are derived from the need to reinforce competitiveness generally as well as focus on income generation. One such pressure is the determination by university managers to prise research from teaching thus buttressing the division of scholarly labour. Neoliberalism, a reform process that encourages global competition in all sectors is generally recognised as the overarching impulse driving these trends. The neoliberal agenda seeks to mould all institutions of HE using a philosophy that champions the role of the private sector in political and economic affairs, holding that competition brings about efficiency. In Europe, the Bologna process is the driving force behind much of this change. The adverse impact of neoliberalism on HE is well researched indicating that de-skilling and casualisation are significant consequences of the process Bamberger et al. (2019) discuss the way in which seemingly progressive ideas, when linked to the neoliberal drive into HE, provide cover for the normalisation of educational inequalities. It also impacts on academics� working conditions. In the United States, nontenure-track positions of all types now account for over 70% of all instructional

staff appointments in higher education with part-time (adjunct) college lecturers comprising of 50% of academics. This rapid expansion of non-tenured appointments has resulted in an increasing number of lecturers in precarious employment earning low pay and without benefits. In Britain, the university lecturers� union, UCU, has revealed that 54% of UK academic staff are employed on insecure contracts. Employed by the hour, on fixed-term contracts, or employed as post-graduate student teaching assistants, there is little by the way of career progression (W�nggren 2018). However, 54% is an average figure, since for some institutions and grades the number is far higher. At the University of Southampton 80% of Level 4 research staff are on Fixed Term Contracts (FTCs), at Oxford University 55.3% of all academic staff above �Grade 6�� an Oxford job classification which includes all those who can act as supervisors � held a fixed-term contract in July 2017, compared to 54.6% in 2016 (Cherry 2018). A further result is �the rise of managerialism and a diminishing influence of the academic voice�, where targets, contribution towards competitive edge, and performance management systems together with obtaining revenue from external sources such as funding bodies or providing training courses, determine the worth of an individual academic to her institution. Measures such as benchmarking related to student performance, critical success factors and key performance indicators become the management tools measuring the efficiency of the academic. Essentially what is being described here is a: management model that analyzes all organizations (universities, hospitals, railways) as if they all have the same formal structure and they consist of identical input/output processes, which can be quantified and controlled by management. In theory the manager�s job is to make these processes as efficient as possible.


Another implication of the neoliberal agenda has been for the business takeover of higher education. It is the policy of the UK Conservative government policy to open up HE to private companies and to include the right for students in private universities to have access to the student loan scheme. The expansion of private universities has been, until recently, minimal in the United Kingdom, but they play an increasingly prominent role in global HE with a third, some 60 million, of HE students (Levy 2018) studying in private HE institutions. Only 10 countries do not have some form of private HE provision and even in France 19% of HE students attend private institutions (Bothwell 2018). There is a non-critical response to the neoliberal push These cover the possible integration of Total Quality Management (TQM), Business Process Management (BPM) and Business Process Reengineering (BPR) and lean management practices, such as Lean Six Sigma, that have been applied in private enterprise and, increasingly, other public sector organisations (Maciąg 2019).


Managers see an important ideological role for academics on fixed-term contracts such as the incorporation of full-time non-tenured post-holders into processes focused on issues concerning governance. This process has been identified as a key element in overcoming the obstacles to neoliberal reforms within universities arising from the inertia or opposition of tenured postholders (Armstrong 2016). Non-tenured positions make it easier for managers

to control costs and employees, as well as creating a fifth column, unintentionally developed by non-tenured post holders, within academia itself to undermine the status quo. The relationship between non-tenured posts, management strategies and issues of governance is underresearched and deserves greater scrutiny. Interventionist managerial processes are the practical localised manifestations emanating, in the European context, from the Bologna process initiated in 1999, developed within the Lisbon agenda, which mirror the freemarket, strong-state neoliberal perspective advocated by the Chicago School of economics and politicised by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s. These processes Europeanise, marketise and boost competition within HE under a seemingly benign progression of harmonisation across the EU. The result, however, is anything but harmonious (Br�gger 2019). Yet, because these processes are mediated through specific contexts, not all academics have experienced the environment described above in the same way or at the same time. In the United Kingdom �many academics consider themselves as losing the typical academic life due to managerial pressures� This is not surprising given that previously the neoliberal agenda had more purchase in the United Kingdom than in much of the rest of Europe. However, that picture is changing with HE in Europe increasingly morphing into its UK and US counterparts. In terms of research, �academics find themselves working not within groupings defined by their original discipline but in theme-based interdisciplinary groups whose organising rationale is to serve some external constituency�.

Managers talk of digitally enabled institutions where ICT forms the nervous system, carrying the message about redesigning HE and undermining professional autonomy through non-inclusive decision making processes, increased workloads, and expanding contradictory teaching and research roles. Academics are also judged by their engagement with research as gauged by grant approvals, publications, conference papers, and participation in the publishing process via journal editorships, membership of editorial boards and peer reviewing. For-profit academic publishing is a $25bn industry with profit margins reaching between 35�40% with the emergence of China as a major player in the area. Academic publishing is an increasingly competitive environment with the concentration of academic publishing in a limited number of publishing houses (Hampe 2013). Consequently, five major for-profit publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage) own over half of the world�s academic material, up from 20% in 1973 with an estimated three publishers, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley Blackwell, controlling 42% of all published articles. However, some of these publishing houses are themselves owned by larger multinational companies with, for example, Elsevier being a profitable part of the RELX group which also controls the Scopus, ScienceDirect, SciVal and ClinicalKey academic databases. The numbers are staggering. Johnson et al. (2018: 25) estimate that there were about �33,100 active scholarly peer-reviewed English-language journals in 2018, collectively publishing some 3 million articles a year�. According to RELX�s own figures, during 2018 there were:over 2m articles submitted and 1bn articles consumed by researchers. In 2019, Elsevier published over 49,000 gold open access articles, a double digit growth on the previous year, making it one of the largest open access publishers in the world. Elsevier�s portfolio of 2,500 journals is managed by more than 22,000 editors (RELX 2019).


This concentration and centralisation of academic publishing and databases has intensified the competition, directly impacting on how research is undertaken and disseminated in terms of form and content (Peekhaus 2012) adversely impacting on the viability of niche journals, often linked to professional associations and providing an important outlet for quite specific areas of research. This has resulted in a funding decrease and problems of ranking as academics and librarians are coerced into subscribing to the journals owned by the big publishing houses There has been an increase in the number of online open access journals which account for between 7 and 11% of academic publishing (Kaiser 2010). While this appears to be a positive development, it does raise questions concerning the business model with the possibility of authors having to carry the cost of publication which can range from $500 to $3000 per paper The peer review process is also problematic. Leaving aside issues such as quality, Eve notes that peer reviewing often acted as a filter to reduce the number of articles appearing in journals given the limitations of space. Further, the process of peer reviewing is often faulty given the nature of the subject areas and various sub-sets contained within them, and the targeted audiences for academic journals. The act of peer reviewing has stimulated the development of a problematic self-censoring mechanism by encouraging submissions that fit the priorities and perspectives of a given journal, and which are not always �peer reviewed�.


Even getting published does not necessarily mean access to funding for research. Studies looking into the allocation of health research funding in both the US and the UK noted that while here may be some differences between the two experiences, �the picture seems to be consistent in both cases: many of the researchers who publish the most influential papers in health research may be left out of public and charity funding� They further add that most of the funding available for health research from the three major funding bodies was awarded to serving board members of those bodies who do not figure as authors of the most cited, influential research papers. Stavropoulou, Somai and Ioannidis conclude their paper by saying decisions on who will receive a grant may be influenced by the �money-follows money�rather than �money-follows-excellence� principle. The neoliberal reshaping of the university sector plus the domination of academic publishing by an increasingly diminishing number of publishing houses has homogenised the conditions within which academics work. Difficulties in obtaining funding for research; the imperatives of funding bodies; the squeeze on time because of teaching or administrative commitments; the lack of institutional, human and technical support on top of the pressure to publish are the burdens with which research-focused academics must cope. Key concepts which were �traditionally firmly woven into the very fabric of knowledge production� and which denote the academic professional, such as autonomy, academic freedom, linking research to teaching, the pursuit of knowledge through scholarship, and the freedom to publish without constraint and external pressure, have been eroded by the neoliberal steamroller. The only certainty for the academic profession is increasing uncertainty.


The conditions in which lecturers work have encouraged researchers, such as Musselin (2007), to argue that: the current developments affecting academic (craft) activities tend to

transform them into academic (industrial) work. This considerably reduces the differences between the members of the academic profession and traditional workers. In terms of control over the organisation of their time, the allocation of tasks and the specialisation of their activities, as well as in terms of staff and career management, the discrepancies between a wage-earner in a firm and a faculty member have decreased on the average (more for contingent staff than for the traditional tenured positions) (Musselin 2007: 183). This is the general environment within which scholars carry out their daily tasks and space has precluded from this discussion issues such as diversity, recruitment, career progression and research opportunity; the relationship between academic journal editors and publishers; the link between plagiarism and the pressure to publish; the increasing problem of published papers based on false or reworked (and misrepresented) data, the growing divide in income between university bosses and scholars, and the relation between the managers and the managed.


One experienced researcher recalled the intensely competitive environment of a previous workplace that �was a very competitive environment�[at two others there was a] great scramble for grants� at another we were constantly talking about where the next grant proposal was coming from�� (ME3 US). As the following comment indicates, this environment has a directly adverse impact on researching the subject area: �One of the most effective computer ethicists�uses his spare time writing on computer ethics because� he is required (by his institution) to get large scientific grants� it doesn�t help him when there is this competition model� (ME2 US). �In my country if you are not linked to someone very powerful you have no chance of getting a grant� (ME2 EU). �In one way� all research is competitive� you compete to get funding from different agencies� (ME SA).

A great deal has been written recently on the problems associated with getting published and, as mentioned earlier, all the scholars interviewed for this study felt that publishing papers was a key aspect of their work. One recent researcher in the field said, �Competition relates to publications... getting the word out� getting your publications known� (FR SA). Her immediate concern was to disseminate her research as widely as possible yet, as another participant from her region notes, �In my country there is only one set of peer-reviewed journals and resources are affected by who gets published� (FE SA). These two quotes neatly summarise the problem facing any scholar seeking to reach out to a wider academic circle: �Because there are a limited number of publications and spaces this leads to competition� (ME2 US). Publication is critical for the diffusion of research results and directly impacts on the distribution of research funding. The problem is compounded by the self-perpetuating hierarchy of journals in terms of ranking. The higher the ranking the more difficult it is to get a paper accepted by a journal thus increasing the intensity of competition. As one interviewee said, �Getting into certain journals is highly competitive� (ME1 US). The impact of this environment on the mood of the scholars, particularly those new to the subject, is summed up by one participant when she asked, �Have you not heard of publish or perish?� (FR EU). The hierarchy of journals is matched by the hierarchy of authors for, as one contributor said, �If your name in the field is known, there is normally no problem to get published. If your name is not known� it is very difficult to get published� (ME2 EU). He went on to say that a paper that had previously been rejected would now be accepted because of his reputation.


A key aspect of publishing is the peer review system and all of the participants in this part of the study had experienced peer reviewing, in one form or another, and their views on peer-reviewing were mixed irrespective of whether they were recent or experienced researchers. Talking about peer reviewing for journals, two scholars commented: �Usually I am quite happy with it� it is helpful� my experience generally is that they [reviewers] are helpful� (FE SA) and �most of the time I appreciate the value added by the reviewers� (ME1 US). Another commented that she found the system �valuable, and sometimes you get excellent feedback and it helps you improve� (FE EU) and one other said, �Sometimes it was really helpful� (FR EU). However, almost all of these comments were qualified to one degree or

another. �I mean sometimes you are frustrated by reviewers� comments�� (FR EU). Another explained that �you are assuming that it is an expert who is doing the review� and has an overview of the field� this is utopian now because� it is impossible for someone to have an overview of all that is produced� (FE EU). Another participant remarked that �sometimes the reviewers are not a match with the topic� (FR SA). Rejection of a paper is not a light matter for these scholars, for as one experienced researcher in the field said, �Some of the time I think it is unfair and incorrect and I take it personally� (ME3 US). To this he added, �Getting accepted is a big deal. Even at this point in my career I still get rejections, and this is still discouraging� (ME3 US). When it comes to project review this is a different story� it is of a very low standard and not really serious� from within the European Union� there is pressure not to be too critical� there are lots of problems with this review process (FE EU).

Given that substantial sums of funding are now available for projects concerned with ICT from the EU and given that these projects include a wide range of researchers, the weakness in the review system identified by the comment immediately above has consequences for the quality of research. There is a further problem associated with publishing linked to authorship which is in turn related to the prolific publishing schedules of some scholars. Ioannidis, Klavans and Boyack (2018) have undertaken an examination of primarily scientific papers to show that there are relatively few academics publishing a significant number of papers with the number publishing 72 or more per year having increased over a 14-year period.


This section looks at the differing perceptions of the participants of the significance or otherwise of the competitive environment. For some, competition was considered beneficial, and an important component in safeguarding quality; as one scholar commented: �I want competition to be there as a sort of guard against fluff passing as good ethics� (ME3 US). This view was supported by two other interviewees who remarked that, �I do think that competition can lead to better quality� (ME2 EU) and �I do see the merit in competition as driving up�quality� (ME1 EU). Although the latter scholar qualified this comment by adding that �perhaps this is too simplistic.� Another participant said that she enjoyed this environment: �That is to me one of the reasons I am here. I like to work under stress� (FE SA). However, the comments from most of the participants were critical of the environment. Some identified competition as leading to exclusion with two participants remarking that, �There are certainly people who are left wishing they had more interaction and influence� (ME3 US) and �I am starting to learn to be careful with people I don�t know about sharing ideas� I limit now to working with a smaller group of people that I know and can trust� (FR EU). The grant tendering process, discussed above, deepens the exclusive impulse and has consequences for academics looking to develop networks and relationships; as one interviewee said, �You have basically to win� so there is competition and you choose who the best partner is� (RE EU). What is being highlighted here is that well-established researchers or (increasingly) research centres are preferred to relatively less well-known scholars even if the latter have greater expertise in the subject area. At the same time, the pressure to develop a high profile produces contradictory tensions for scholars that undermine the collaborative inclination for, as one participant said, �Perhaps people who are younger and less well established�cannot afford to be too collaborative� (ME1 US). The choices made when deciding to publish research papers are strongly influenced, in several ways, by the competitive environment. Describing the situation in this context, one scholar said, �Getting into journals it is highly competitive where some journals have a 5% acceptance rate� (ME1 EU). Some had doubts about how effective competition was in pushing up the quality of research. They are also aware that often their work and the work others produce are not of an original nature, for as one of the participants said, �The idea of publish or perish is for me is something quite bad because I think that only creative papers� saying something new should be published� (ME2 EU). Competition also has subtle, self-regulating impact. One participant in talking about his research output said, �I certainly have made arguments that deep inside myself I would have made differently, on the basis that I knew that if I didn�t do otherwise the work would not go through the peer review�. (ME1 EU). As the quote indicates, he acknowledges that the pressures of competition compromise intellectual integrity. The notion of creativity is also undermined by the competitive environment. As one interviewee said, �The problem is that when you have so much pressure to publish you cannot publish something creative all the time so you have to publish something quite average� not something particularly new� (ME2 EU). The process being described is one where scholars must publish and impose self-censorship on the intellectual core of their work to meet the demands of a given journal and/or institution and knowingly submit work they feel is of an inadequate standard. The implication underlying these sentiments is that competition has a significant negative impact on the quality of intellectual endeavour because it limits the scope of research (it has to fit with the demands of the preferred journals) and leads to the recycling of existing ideas. Furthermore they imply that the competition to publish denies the possibility of judging the significance of research using other criteria.


Competition also has a negative impact on the collective nature of research and here not all the participants felt the collective effort was beneficial. One researcher working in Europe said, �Doing the research individually but listening and getting comments from other researchers�projects create the need for a more collective approach�[this] can be negative� it would be better for individuals to get research money� (ME3 EU). One indicated that she preferred to work alone: �I have very little collaborative work� Philosophers are usually loners, right?� (FE EU). Another hinted that collective work can disguise individual contribution. �The most recent work was part of a team� we published as a team, but I did all the work� I had the time� they had the grant� � (FR AUS). Competition. results in winners and losers and as one scholar remarked: �I think that the people who are at the top of this field have won this competition� (ME1 USA). However, for those who have �won� they must keep winning which is not a given and there are continual reminders of this. In talking about how she felt about the competitive nature of the activity, one scholar said, �I struggle with that personally quite a lot� the tension between scientific goals of the university and social goals is very stressful� � (FR EU).


Participants made a clear distinction between what they produce and what control they have over how their final creation is used. Control of outcome can be quite overt with several other scholars noting that for externally funded projects outcomes can be predetermined. As one remarked, �It depends on who you work for� if the purpose and objectives are given to you at the start of the project you have less control over the research because you only give the results they want� (FE SA). This does not mean that the scholars simply write what the funding body wants to hear, but that the scope of the research is constrained. As a result, other aspects are ignored, even though they may be considered by researchers to be worthy of investigation and directly related to the specific study.. One developing researcher said that �this can be quite disheartening because� the result of hard work� is just brushed off and not really applied� (FR SA). This perspective was echoed by another who remarked �After I have finished and published and tied it all up... there it sat which was a great pity� � (FR AU). These sentiments were shared by the more experienced scholars one of whom observed, �I don�t have any control over how that report is used. As a researcher there should be some way to control or inform yourself how these things are used� (ME4 EU).


Although all but one of the participants experienced a degree of institutional pressure to engage in research and to publish that research, not all experienced the demand to the same degree. It was noticeable that those scholars who were nearing retirement or who had retired believed that the demands from their academic institution took the form of a light touch. For others, however, there was intense pressure from their institution. Most remarked that they were required to publish and generate external revenue from funded projects and suchlike. One was quite specific about the form this took: we get measured every six months using key performance indicators and if you do not comply out you go� they put pressure on you to produce outputs� I have to produce five peer-reviewed journal articles per year and at least ten conference proceedings� students make this easier (FE SA). She went on to detail how a �journal article is rated at 1 point, a conference paper is 0.5� and a book is valued at 5� (FE SA). Many of the scholars interviewed also teach, which creates conflicting demands for, as one remarked ,�there is a perception that� we will need to teach better and at the same time we will need to do research� the entire sector has become more stressful� (ME1 EU).



Source, University fees in historical perspective, Robert Anderson | 08 February 2016


Between 1962 and the 1990s higher education in Britain was effectively free, as the state paid students� tuition fees and also offered maintenance grants to many. In 1998 university fees were reintroduced at �1000 per year. In 2004 they were raised to �3000, now converted into loans repayable on an income-contingent basis, but still regarded as �top-up� fees supplementing the state�s direct grants to universities. Following the 2010 election, the basis of university finance was radically transformed, as student fees, now raised to �9000, largely replaced the teaching element in the state grants. This policy applies in England, but in Scotland free higher education has become a flagship policy of the Scottish National Party. The Scottish experience, and the collapse in Liberal Democrat support after the party�s acceptance of fees as the price of coalition, suggest that free higher education still has electoral appeal, when backed by a firm political will. But in England it seems unlikely that the policy will soon be reversed. Indeed, the Chancellor is abolishing maintenance grants for lower income students from 2016, reducing still further state support for higher education. It is the product of a tide of marketisation which has flowed in one direction since the 1980s, and it is unlikely that any government seeking to mitigate the impact of �austerity� will give priority to abolishing university fees over issues which arouse more passionate popular engagement like the National Health Service, schools, or welfare. Even in Scotland, the fiscal sustainability of the no-fees policy is questionable, and it has been paid for by cuts elsewhere, including student maintenance grants and further education.

Conservative university policy, as expressed in the White Paper of 2011 (Students at the heart of the system) and the Green Paper of 2015 (Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice), is based on clear general principles of choice and competition. But opposition to it often focuses simply on student fees. This is understandable, given their direct impact on students and their families, but fails to address broader issues about how universities are financed and what their relationship with the state should be. There is a broad contrast between continental Europe, where the state has generally controlled and financed universities, and the United States, where they have developed on mixed private and public lines. Britain falls somewhere between. The state played a larger part in university history in the past than is often supposed, and British universities were knitted over the years into a single national system, though one with a clear hierarchy of prestige. This is very relevant to how the marketisation of universities through the fee system may work out in the future.

Reform in the 19th century

There were practical reasons why Oxford and Cambridge, the only English universities until around 1830, did not need state aid. They had rich endowments, mainly in the form of land, and a wealthy clientele which could pay high fees. The laissez-faire principles of Victorian Britain meant that political opinion was broadly hostile to state intervention. Thus, when university colleges were founded in London around 1830, they got no state subsidy. However, it was a different picture in Scotland. Scottish universities were not free (though this is sometimes claimed, wrongly, as an ancient tradition), but fees and living expenses were low, and there were state grants, mainly in the form of professorial salaries, which were supplemented from student fees. University education was accessible to a wide social spectrum, and Scottish intellectuals consistently argued that the democratic character of the universities justified state support; they often pointed to continental models, especially Germany.

State grants before 1914

Between the 1850s and the 1880s, both the Scottish universities and Oxbridge underwent far-reaching reform imposed by Parliament. Their role in the education of the national elite was too important to escape political attention. The Scottish universities received expanded funding. Oxford and Cambridge were still able to survive on their endowments, but reformers held that these were a public trust, not private property, and needed to be unlocked to serve new purposes. Meanwhile new �civic� university colleges were founded in the English provinces, particularly the industrial north and midlands. They arose from local initiative, and at first received no state aid. But their support from local industries and businesses was very patchy, and none had a secure endowment. They depended on fees, public appeals, and a constant search for donations. It soon became clear that the English university colleges (including the old-established ones in London) met a real social and economic need, but were held back by poverty. From 1889 they received a Treasury grant, initially of �15,000, shared between institutions. In Wales, there had been a similar grant since 1882. Why had opinion come round to the idea of state subsidy? Partly because of a general shift of opinion towards a more positive role for the state, and more specifically because of fears that Britain was being outclassed industrially by other nations, especially Germany. A strong lobby pressed for more to be spent on scientific and technical education, and the civic colleges were favoured because they taught practical subjects and had links with local industries. Most of their students came from relatively modest social backgrounds, and would be unable to pay high fees.

The Treasury grant increased periodically, and by 1911 was about �150,000 in England and Wales, where significant income also came from county and city authorities. The Scottish universities were the most dependent on student fees (46% overall, ranging from 23% at St Andrews to 51% at Glasgow), and the three Welsh colleges were the most dependent on public grants (state 54%, local 6%). Throughout Great Britain, fees hardly ever exceeded half of university income; more commonly they accounted for between a quarter and a third. Since the bulk of university expenditure was on teaching, these figures represent the proportion of the true cost of their education paid by students. By 1914 the viability of the British university system, outside the elite-patronised Oxbridge, already depended on public financial support

The University Grants Committee and the interwar years

Between 1919 and 1939, state spending on universities doubled (from one to two million pounds), but the balance of funding established before 1914 hardly changed, as the bar chart shows. In 1938-9, 30% of income came from fees, 36% from central grants. The extent of state aid before 1914 is worth stressing because it is often supposed that this only began with the creation of the University Grants Committee in 1919. The UGC was initially a pragmatic arrangement bringing together existing state grants under a single body, and acting as a �buffer� between the Treasury and the universities. Its members were academics sympathetic to university values, and they allowed the universities a high degree of autonomy, giving them �block grants� to spend without detailed control. The UGC held a conservative ideal of university education, and severely restricted new admissions to the grant list, which from 1923 included Oxford and Cambridge. UGC grants normally covered only current expenditure, and universities had to seek extra funding, often from charitable trusts and wealthy philanthropists, for new buildings, professorships, equipment, and student facilities. After the UGC�s abolition in 1989, its regime was looked back to as a golden age. But long before that, it was widely admired externally as a uniquely British solution to the problem of balancing academic freedom with public accountability. This helps to explain why, in a form of institutional amnesia, the extent of state aid before 1919 has been forgotten: it suited the universities to associate its beginnings with the creation of a body which respected their independence and embedded their autonomy institutionally.

A further 20th-century development was the expansion of public aid to students. There had always been college scholarships at Oxford and Cambridge, and bursaries for poor students in Scotland, and from the 1880s local authorities also offered university scholarships. Nationally, �equality of opportunity� through education was adopted as a political aspiration well before 1914. The channels of opportunity were still very narrow, but they expanded with new schools legislation in 1918, and in 1920 national �state scholarships� were created in England and Wales � though at first there were only 200 of them. Grants for prospective schoolteachers were another important form of state assistance, though in return students had to pledge themselves to a period working in schools. Surveys in the 1930s found that about half of all university students received public support of some kind. Since awards usually included fees as well as living expenses (�maintenance�), this benefited the universities� finances directly as well as widening the recruitment pool.

The abolition of fees and the Robbins Report

As in other European countries (though a generation after the United States), the years after 1945 saw a shift from elite towards mass higher education. The Second World War, even more than the First, underlined the importance of science, national planning and social welfare, and gave a strong impulse to the democratisation of education. The Cold War and international economic competition reinforced these trends. The state now became the main source of university funds, and this came to seem both natural and irreversible. Expansion of student numbers began as soon as the war ended, and the UGC�s role was extended to include national policy planning. Post-war expansion is popularly associated with the Robbins report of 1963, but though the report was vital in creating a political consensus which lasted for a generation, it only endorsed what was already happening. It was the UGC, not the Robbins committee, which planned the eight campus or �plateglass� universities of the 1960s � the first, Sussex, opened in 1961. Unlike the earlier civic universities, or the dozen less glamorous technical colleges which were given university status in the 1960s, these were not based on existing local colleges, and depended on state finance from the start.

Free higher education also predated Robbins, being introduced in 1962 following the report of the Anderson committee. This was intended to simplify what had become a jungle of grants and scholarships, and had two aspects. First, though fees were not formally abolished, full-time domestic students now had them paid by the state. Second, students were entitled to a maintenance grant, whether at their local university or away from home. The maintenance grants were means tested (dependent on parental income), as were fee grants until 1977, but both were outright payments, not loans. Provided parents paid their share (if any), students were free of financial burdens. The Robbins committee took these changes as given. They were seen as a logical extension of free secondary schooling, introduced in England and Wales in 1944. It is often forgotten that the Robbins report preceded the introduction of comprehensive education. It therefore assumed the continuation of grammar schools, which allowed only 20-25% of children to enter a university entry path. Post-Robbins expansion raised the proportion of the age-group receiving any form of higher education from 7% in 1962 (4% for universities alone) to about 13% in 1980. But when student demand subsequently grew far beyond what was envisaged in the 1960s, the state�s commitment to free higher education made university finance a contentious political question.

Without something like the changes made in 1962, expansion beyond a limited social base would have been impossible. Most European countries met the same demand by abolishing fees or keeping them at a nominal level, but the British model was uniquely expensive. One of the basic ideas of Robbins was that students in new and expanded universities should enjoy the same standards of teaching as in the older ones: a staff/student ratio of one to eight was considered the optimum, and was largely maintained until the 1980s. Furthermore, the prestige of the residential model, as shown by the campus universities, meant that universities not only had to pay for a great expansion of university staff, and for expensive laboratories and libraries, but also for student accommodation and social, welfare and sporting facilities. As many critics have pointed out, this was a luxury version of the mass university, reflecting the image and prestige of Oxford and Cambridge.

From the 1960s to the 1980s

In the �Robbins era� a political culture of social democracy and high public expenditure coexisted with the traditions of university autonomy established by the UGC. Despite new foundations, universities could still be seen as a single national system committed to common values and fundable on a uniform basis. Although universities are not usually seen as part of the �welfare state�, equality of opportunity was interpreted to mean that higher education should be a right, deriving from common citizenship, for all qualified to benefit from it (the �Robbins principle�). It was not a universal benefit, but paying for it from general taxation seemed acceptable if universities recruited strictly on merit. They were obliged to adopt admission procedures, organised nationally from 1961 by what is now the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which treated all students equally, and even the most prestigious universities were open to all. The best higher education could no longer be bought by the rich, and �needs blind admission� � sometimes cited as a virtue of American universities, though only the richest can afford it � was the rule throughout the system. Free higher education was seen as a long-term investment in human and intellectual capital, and those who benefited from it would expect to pay through progressive taxation for its extension to future generations. All this was seen as a permanent social achievement. Thus, the recent erosion of free higher education has had a symbolic and emotional impact as it seems to reverse the tide of progress.

The relative conservatism of the UGC, and universities� freedom in using the block grant, prolonged the life of a university model established internationally since the early 19th century. Institutional autonomy, whether from churches, the state, or the market, was seen as essential to the university�s intellectual mission. Academic freedom guaranteed the right of science and learning to develop without external direction. In this traditional �idea of the university�, teaching and research should go together, enriching each other � whereas the recent tendency is to divide them between separate funding streams. In the romanticised ideal of a �community of scholars and students� the two were partners in the common pursuit of truth. Seeing students as consumers whose choices and demands drive teaching fails to capture the input from students required by university-level teaching, its complex relationship with scientific advance and  critical inquiry, or universities� socially important credentialling function. It is issues of this kind, rather than simple conservatism or the defence of professional self-interest, which have made the academic world resistant to so many aspects of recent policy, along with an ethos which sees higher education as a public good and values collegiality and cooperation above competition. But were these traditions only historic attributes of the elite university whose day is now past, or do they remain valid in the age of mass higher education?

From state to market

The equilibrium and consensus of the Robbins era did not last. Post-war expansion meant that even before Robbins about 70% of universities� income came from the UGC; if other state funds were counted � via research or student support � the figure was 90%. This held dangers for the universities, which relaxed their fundraising efforts and neglected their links with local communities. Dependence on state funding made them vulnerable to periodic economic crises and the resulting attempts of governments to cut public expenditure. A first crisis of this kind came in 1973, a more serious one in 1981. Following the advent to power of Margaret Thatcher, this became more than a matter of cuts, as market ideology and the imperative of lower taxes became political orthodoxy. In the 1980s the block grant to universities survived, but came under increasing pressure, and governments urged universities to raise more money independently and to run themselves on more businesslike lines. From 1985, in a pilot exercise which became permanent, the teaching and research elements in the grant were separated, allowing selective funding in favour of universities with strong research. The desire for more direct state intervention led to the demise of the UGC in 1989, and its replacement by separate funding councils for England, Scotland and Wales that were more responsive to government policy.

In the 1990s the old consensus finally broke down, for practical as well as ideological reasons. First, demand for university education, which had been expected to stabilise, again took off. Second, in 1992 a Conservative government gave full university status to the polytechnics and other colleges which had formed a �public� sector of higher education since the 1960s. This removed the last survivals of local authority governance and finance which had once counterweighed centralisation, while creating an expanded system whose diversity made it difficult to identify common missions and values. Pressure now arose for student finance to be converted from outright grants to loans. By stages in the 1990s, maintenance grants were turned into loans, with some outright payments retained for poorer students (until abolished in 2015). As taking a maintenance loan was optional, this was relatively uncontroversial. Restoring fees in the form of loans was a different matter: a proposal in 1984 was hastily withdrawn after a Conservative backbench rebellion � a reminder that free higher education was a prized middle-class benefit. The issue was postponed by appointing the Dearing inquiry, reporting in 1997, which proposed a set of new options for student funding.

It was Tony Blair who grasped this nettle, introducing a universal fee, paid �upfront� not as a loan, of �1000 a year. In 2004, fees were raised to a maximum of �3000 a year, but now as an income-contingent loan. These were still called �top up� fees, intended to supplement, not replace, core funding by the state. Blair believed that the expansion of higher education had run far ahead of economic growth. To maintain the quality of British universities, either more taxes must be spent on them, which lacked popular appeal, or there must be other sources of finance, including a student contribution justified by the higher earning power of graduates. The 2004 proposals were forced through Parliament despite strong opposition, and in the 2005 election the Conservative manifesto promised to abolish Blair�s fees (a fact now conveniently forgotten). Meanwhile, power over universities was devolved to the new legislatures in Wales and Scotland set up in 1999. After various intermediate solutions, fees were abolished entirely in Scotland for Scottish students (so university education is again free for students), while Wales and Northern Ireland retained a combination of tuition fee loans (currently �3800) and direct funding. When the Conservatives became leaders of the Coalition government in 2010, they adopted a more radical policy for England. The �top-up� idea was abandoned, and fees were raised to a level, up to �9000 a year, intended to cover the whole cost of teaching, and to replace the teaching element in the state grant. The choices made by students now conceived of as customers exercising choice in paying for a product in a market � and no longer as citizens exercising a social right - were intended to drive the development of the system, reshaping it through competition between institutions.


There are many practical and ideological arguments both for and against current policies. But a historical perspective underlines their radicalism. They are not a simple development of previous Labour initiatives, or a return to some past utopia of private finance. The current policy in England that fees should cover the whole cost of teaching has no real historical precedent, for students have seldom paid the true cost of their education. Moreover, both before 1914 and under the UGC regime until 1989, state funding was only given to universities or colleges which met stringent conditions of quality, under public or charitable governance. Universities were not directly controlled by the state, but nevertheless belonged to the public realm. By decoupling the payment of fees from the subsidy of individual universities, and making them cover the full cost of provision, the field has been made attractive to for-profit organisations. The intention, pushed further in the 2015 Green Paper, is to encourage new �providers� offering cheapness and flexibility. But in the eyes of critics it is part of a wider neoliberal programme of opening public services to globalised corporations, paving the way for general privatisation.

English politicians in the Conservative government look for inspiration above all to the United States, rather than to other parts of Europe, or indeed of the United Kingdom. Some European countries retain free higher education, and elsewhere fees are far lower than in England, while Germany has abandoned an experiment with charging fees after popular opposition. The American model itself is more complex than champions of marketisation claim. According to OECD figures, public expenditure on higher education in the USA is both a higher proportion of all public expenditure (3.3%) and a higher proportion of GDP (1.4%) than in Britain, where the corresponding figures, below the average for advanced countries, are 2% and 1%. The top-ranking private universities in America are only part of a diverse and flexible system, spread over fifty states, with very unequal standards. While spiralling tuition fees at top universities are making them unaffordable for ordinary middle-class families, the national average is below England�s �9,000.

British universities have developed into a single national system, through the addition of successive layers � civic universities, plateglass universities, the technical universities of the 1960s, the new universities of 1992. In the resulting hierarchy, universities were unequal in intellectual and social prestige, but in principle equally accessible. State funding was a guarantor of fairness. But markets in education, left to themselves, will reproduce inequalities of wealth and social capital. This is reinforced by the unique pattern of secondary schooling in England, with its privileged private sector. If the present cap of �9000 is abolished, following the Green Paper proposal that universities which demonstrate �teaching excellence� will be allowed to raise their fees, student choice (illusory anyway when so many universities are highly selective) is likely to lead to new divisions. Teaching reputations, social prestige and research funding already cluster around the 24 universities of the �Russell Group�, whose attraction for students and employers is very apparent in public discussion of university entry and graduate employment. They risk becoming the universities of the rich and socially privileged, leaving second-rank universities for everyone else.

The relation of British universities to the state has a long history; student fees have been part of the mix, but higher education has never previously been abandoned to the market as in England today. Modern states elsewhere support universities because their benefits are social as well as individual, and they have been the creators of individual opportunity, social solidarity, and national identity. The state is unlikely to abandon its interest in them. The combination of core funding and top-up fees introduced by the former Labour government, and adopted in modified form in Wales and Northern Ireland, creates a better balance between student interests, public accountability, academic freedom and democratic access than current entirely unprecedented policies pursued in England which are driven by a market dogma, which should not be allowed to monopolise the debate.