01 - England - Historical overview

The first universities, those of Oxford and Cambridge, evolved as private bodies during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Although other bodies, such as the Inns of Court (law) and Royal Colleges of Medicine and Surgery, became increasingly important as providers of professional training and regulation of competence, it was not until the nineteenth and early twentieth century that the major civic universities were founded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These remained private foundations, albeit with occasional government financial aid.

In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of university colleges developed, catering mainly for local students taking University of London external degrees. These subsequently became universities in their own right.

The Barlow Report (1946) recommended a doubling of university student numbers, especially in science subjects, to meet the need for scientific manpower. Both government finance and student numbers were greatly increased in the immediate postwar period.

Many institutions had been originally set up by charitable endowment to enable working-class men and women to advance their general knowledge and industrial skills on a part- or full-time basis. Such institutions, known as polytechnics, were later maintained and regulated by local authorities. The 1966 White Paper ‘A Plan for the Polytechnics and Other Colleges’ (GB. Parliament. HoC, 1966) described the polytechnics as regional centres of higher education linking industry with business. They offered the full range of academic qualifications up to, and including, doctorates, and provided some programmes in traditional academic fields as well as vocational programmes.

Other higher education institutions were originally established as colleges for training teachers. A significant number of these were provided by churches. They were subsequently maintained and regulated by local authorities.

The Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) was established in 1964 for the validation of programmes at higher education institutions, such as polytechnics and higher education colleges, which did not have their own degree-awarding powers.

A number of 'new universities' were founded in the 1960s, following the publication of the government-sponsored Robbins Report (Robbins, 1963), which took the view that: ‘courses of higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so'. It recommended further expansion, a broadening of both the regional spread and of the scope and diversity of university education, and the creation of specialist technological universities. These included both the campus universities, built on greenfield sites on the edge of cities, and upgraded technological colleges. (Note: In more recent years, the term 'new universities' has come to denote institutions which gained university title since 1992.)

Under the Education Reform Act 1988, polytechnics and higher education colleges in England and Wales were removed fromlocal authority control, and became autonomous institutions. They were funded by the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council in England and by the then Welsh Office or Welsh local authorities in Wales. The Act created a separate body, the Universities Funding Council, to fund universities in England and Wales.

In Northern Ireland, the merger in 1984 of the Ulster Polytechnic with the New University of Ulster to form the University of Ulster removed the division between universities and polytechnics and colleges.

In England and Wales there remained a 'binary divide' between the university sector and the public/polytechnic sector. However, as universities began to offer vocational courses and work alongside business and their local communities, and non-university institutions undertook scholarship and research, the distinction between them became increasingly blurred. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 abolished the binary divide and reformed the structure of higher education in England and Wales into a single sector. It dissolved the Universities Funding Council and the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council and created two new bodies to fund all higher education institutions in their respective areas – the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). It dissolved the CNAA and enabled the former polytechnics to gain degree-awarding powers and to use the word 'university' in their title. Other higher education institutions were able to apply to the Privy Council for taught degree-awarding powers, research degree-awarding powers and university title.

During the early 1990s, despite a rapid expansion of the higher education sector, public funding for institutions fell by around 25 per cent per student, putting considerable pressure on universities and colleges. In 1994, faced with increasing demand for higher education, the Government imposed a ceiling on growth in full-time undergraduate student numbers.

Against this background, in May 1996, the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education was established, by agreement between the main political parties, to make recommendations on how the purposes, shape, size and funding of higher education, including support for students, should develop to meet the needs of the United Kingdom over the next 20 years. The Committee, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing, reported in July 1997 (Dearing, 1997). Key themes and recommendations of the report included the following:

  • A new 'compact' for higher education between the state, individuals and their families, graduates and institutions in which each should contribute to, and receive benefits from, higher education.
  • An increase and widening of participation, mainly through two-year courses of higher education provided in colleges of further education.
  • Implementation of measures to improve standards in teaching and to ensure the comparability of qualifications.
  • Greater emphasis on the regional role of universities and colleges.
  • The ability of universities and colleges to govern and manage themselves to obtain maximum efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Support of excellence in research.
The Committee also made a number of recommendations concerning the funding of higher education, including a proposal that full-time students in higher education should pay some of the costs of their tuition fees. The Government response to the Dearing Report was published in February 1998 (DfEE, 1998a) in parallel with the Green Paper, ‘The Learning Age’ (GB. Parliament. HoC, 1998).

The Government’s White Paper, ‘The Future of Higher Education’ (GB. Parliament. HoC, 2003b), set out the Government's strategy for the reform of higher education in England, as well as a number of measures which affect the rest of the United Kingdom. The Higher Education Act 2004 legislated for these proposals. The Act allowed higher education institutions in England to charge variable tuition fees of up to £3,000 per year, rising only with inflation until an independent review is undertaken in 2009. The Act also introduced new arrangements for student support, allowing students to take out a tuition fee loan for the full amount of their fees, and providing a means-tested maintenance grant.

The Higher Education Act 2004 devolved responsibility for elements of higher education funding and student support to the National Assembly for Wales (NAfW). In 2005 the NAfW reached an agreement on new financial arrangements for higher education students, and, from 2007/08, Welsh higher education institutions are able to charge variable tuition fees as in England. However, Welsh domiciled students studying in Wales are eligible for a £1,800 fee grant to offset the rise in fees.

In Northern Ireland, the Higher Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2005, passed in April 2005, introduced variable tuition fees and new student support measures, as in England.

One of the Government's main aims for higher education is to raise and widen participation. The Higher Education Act 2004 established the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) in England. OFFA is an independent body, separate from, but supported by, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The main role of OFFA is to to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for under-represented groups, in the light of the introduction of variable tuition fees in 2006-07. Any institution that intends to charge the maximum tuition fee needs an ‘Access Agreement’ approved by the Director of OFFA. Access Agreements set out the measures – financial and otherwise – that a university has to take to help students from under-represented groups. OFFA itself has no remit over admissions.

Although OFFA covers England only, there are similar arrangements in place in Northern Ireland, where institutions wishing to charge higher fees must have an approved plan in place to increase participation by under-represented groups in higher education. In Wales, there is no requirement on higher education institutions to provide bursaries. This is at the discretion of individual higher education institutions, and forms part of their widening access policies.

Following the White Paper ‘The Future of Higher Education’, which proposed the creation of a Teaching Quality Academy, the Higher Education Academy (HEA) was set up in 2004 to work with the UK higher education community to enhance the student experience. The HEA has worked with institutions and professional bodies to develop national professional standards in higher education teaching. It has also been working with institutions to develop a continuing professional development (CPD) framework for the use of registered practitioners and higher education institutions. The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education was also launched in 2004.

A new government department with responsibility for higher education, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), was created in June 2007. DIUS bring together responsibilities for higher education previously held by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Skills.



Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS)
E-mail: info@dius.gsi.gov.uk
Website:  http://www.dius.gov.uk


Higher Education Academy (HEA)
Innovation Way York Science Park Heslington York Y010 5BR. England
Tel.:+44 (0)1904 717500
Fax:+44 (0)1904 717505
E-mail: enquiries@heacademy.ac.uk
Website:  http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/


Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)
Northavon House Coldharbour Lane Bristol BS16 1QD England
Tel.:+44 (0)117 931 7317
Fax:+44 (0)117 931 7203
E-mail:  hefce@hefce.ac.uk
Website:  http://www.hefce.ac.uk


Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)
Northavon House Coldharbour Lane Bristol BS16 1QD England
Tel.:+44 (0)117 931 7317
Fax:+44 (0)117 931 7203
E-mail:  hefce@hefce.ac.uk
Website:  http://www.hefce.ac.uk


Leadership Foundation For Higher Education
88 Kingsway London WC2B 6AA England
Tel.:+44 (0)20 7841 2800
Fax:+44 (0)20 7681 6219
E-mail:  info@lfhe.ac.uk
Website:  http://www.lfhe.ac.uk


National Assembly for Wales (NAfW)
New Crown Building Cathays Park Cardiff Bay Cardiff CF99 1NA Wales
Tel.:+44 29 (0)845 010 5500
E-mail: Assembly.Info@wales.gsi.gov.uk
Website:  http://www.wales.gov.uk


Office for Fair Access (OFFA)
Northavon House Coldharbour Lane Bristol BS16 1QD
Tel.:+44 (0)117 9317171
Fax:+44 (0)117 9317479
E-mail: enquiries@offa.org.uk
Website:  http://www.offa.org.uk/

Eurydice - the information network on education in Europe

Date: 2009
Privacy Policy