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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
'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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.