16.1 Our terms of reference ask us to make recommendations on the shape and structure of higher education; and to have regard, when so doing, to the principle that ‘students should be able to choose between a diverse range of courses, institutions, modes and locations of study’ (emphasis added). This we refer to as the pattern of institutions. In Chapter 3 we described the changes since the Robbins Report to the pattern of institutions which provide higher education. In Chapter 20 we discuss funding for students at privately funded institutions. In this chapter, we consider the pattern of institutions that will be required over the next 20 years in order to deliver the necessary volume and range of higher education which we have described elsewhere.

16.2 In so doing, we take account of the distinctive features of higher education in different parts of the United Kingdom (UK); of the increasingly important links between higher education institutions and other parts of the education and training system, especially further education; and the impact of new forms of provision, including in the workplace and home, as a result of new technology and distance learning. Our work has been informed by evidence from a range of institutions and bodies.1

16.3 There are issues which go to the heart of the capacity of the system to deliver higher education in the way we have described. The distribution, style and title of institutions are matters of concern. Membership of an institution is one of the defining characteristics of many students’ experience of higher education. To many other people, higher education is defined in important ways by the institutions which deliver it and by the names by which those institutions are known. The presence of a higher education institution and its standing is of material significance to any locality. It is important, therefore, that the UK has the pattern of institutions, in terms of their number, type and distribution, which it needs; and that the future pattern has public confidence.

16.4 We respect the tradition established by Robbins, and which has informed subsequent policy developments, that ‘the pattern [of institutions] must provide for organic growth ...it must neither force their development at an intolerable pace nor leave them undisturbed when foresight would indicate the need for action’.2 In this chapter we make recommendations that support both organic growth and intervention. But we think both should be supported by a number of principles, which we develop under the following headings:

  • the diversity and autonomy of institutions;
  • clarity of institutional status;
  • the scope and distribution of institutions providing publicly-funded higher education across the United Kingdom;
  • higher education offered by further education colleges;
  • the scope for collaboration between institutions.

The diversity and autonomy of institutions

16.5 We have inherited institutions of very different sizes, with different strengths, different patterns of participation, different offerings by level and subject of study, different local, regional and national orientations, different legal status and governance arrangements and different histories. Some are of very recent origin; some are ancient foundations; most owe no allegiance to any particular group in society; others are church foundations. All of these factors influence the pattern of institutional provision and the institutions’ individual and collective characters and strategic aspirations.

16.6 Such diversity has considerable strengths, especially in providing for student choice; in programme and pedagogic innovation; in the ability of institutions to capture the energy and commitment of staff; and in the ability of the sector as a whole to meet the wide range of expectations now relevant to higher education. Indeed, institutional diversity has been one of the important defining characteristics of the United Kingdom’s higher education system and, with the concomitant flexibility and autonomy of mission afforded to institutions, is one of the features which distinguishes the UK from some of its international comparators.

16.7 In addition, the systems in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England all have features which link them in important and distinctive ways to the particular circumstances of each country. We say more about some of these features in Chapter 23 and Appendix 1. In all four countries, however, provision is concentrated in three types of institution: universities; higher education colleges; and further education colleges providing higher education. Their pattern can be seen in the following charts.

16.8 Those who gave evidence attested to the value of this diversity and argued persuasively that the need for it would increase rather than decrease in future. One institution told us ‘diversity is a growing element of life, business, commerce, industry and human endeavour in the late 20th century. The diversity in demand that that generates for higher education has to be matched by diversity in education and research provision’.3 The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) endorsed this view, noting that ‘a system growing and responding to the needs of an increasingly heterogeneous group of students must work actively to maintain its diversity – and offer choice to intending students’.4 Our recommendations about widening participation (Chapter 7), the regional role of higher education (Chapter 12), a new qualifications framework (Chapter 10) and alternative research funding arrangements (Chapter 11) all point to the likelihood of increased diversity between institutions.

16.9 In the UK, institutional diversity goes hand in hand with institutional autonomy. We explored in Chapter 15, measures which would underpin the responsible exercise of autonomy by institutions through their governing bodies. Our advocacy of and procedures for involving external constituencies in that chapter should help ensure that institutions exercise their autonomy in a fully informed way.

16.10 But there are two forces which we fear may be starting to affect adversely the proper diversity of provision. The first, which we explore in the rest of this section, is the unintended pressure towards institutional homogeneity. The second, which we explore in the next two sections of the chapter, is a latent danger of declining institutional selfdiscipline.

16.11 First, there is the pressure towards institutional homogeneity. We heard from those who lead and work in the institutions that they consider that current funding arrangements are tending to promote homogeneity, and that institutions, whilst autonomous, are increasingly making similar choices in response to the range of funding options available to them. We were told that:

  • the availability of significant amounts of funding for research on a competitive basis and the high value placed on it have together encouraged institutions to seek to engage in research to attract these funds, sometimes at some expense to other activities;
  • financial uncertainty has encouraged institutions to spread their risks and therefore to dilute the distinctiveness of their missions;
  • Funding Bodies, in seeking to be even-handed in their funding methodologies, are unconsciously reducing the scope for diversity;
  • institutions perceive no explicit financial reward or incentive for pursuing a distinctive mission. The increasing range of society’s expectations of higher education carry with them the danger of institutional ‘mission overload’ rather than a mission which is distinctive yet manageable. It was suggested that:
    ‘one of the biggest dangers is that institutions are being over-loaded with an ever increasing and ultimately unmanageable list of competing economic and social objectives... Not all institutions will be trying to do all these things but too [many] are already attempting to undertake a range of roles that generate demands that their managerial systems and expertise are inadequate to cope with’.5

16.12 It is difficult to judge how far such comments reflect reality. The Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England reminded us that there is already in place a range of funding initiatives which acknowledges differences between institutions; ensures that minority subjects continue to be offered; and which, through selective funding for policy priorities, enables institutions to build on their strengths. He also pointed out that there is no reason why similar inputs should result in similar outputs; and that competitive pressures are themselves a safeguard against conformity.6 On the other hand, there is clearly a perceived danger that competition could lead to conformity of mission and the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development thematic review noted that there may be some risk of this.7

16.13 Our own judgement, from visits and discussion, is that there is in fact considerable diversity between institutions, and that this diversity is a strength in responding to the increasingly diverse needs of students as participation in higher education widens, and in providing genuine choices for students.

Recommendation 61
We recommend to the Government and the Funding Bodies that diversity of institutional mission, consistent with high quality delivery and the responsible exercise of institutional autonomy, should continue to be an important element of the United Kingdom’s higher education system; and that this should be reflected in the funding arrangements for institutions.

16.14 This principle is already reflected in a number of recommendations elsewhere in our report:

  • the recommendation in Chapter 12 for new funding arrangements for regional activity and applied research through the Industrial Partnership Development Fund is intended to reward different kinds and levels of research activity and give them a high public focus;
  • the recommendation in Chapter 11 for funding explicitly in support of scholarship in parallel to support for research in the Research Assessment Exercise shows the value we place on this kind of activity;
  • the recommendation in Chapter 15 that institutional governing bodies should undertake regular reviews of effectiveness should place a greater onus upon them to identify and monitor progress towards their own aspirations;
  • the recommendations in Chapter 12 on the local and regional role of higher education should also reward those institutions which have adopted such a mission;
  • the recommendation in Chapter 20 that graduates in employment should contribute to the costs of their higher education should also encourage diversity by reducing the extent to which institutions are dependent on one source of public funds for teaching. It creates a greater incentive for institutions to respond to the requirements of students who are likely to become more diverse. As Professor Martin Cave has suggested, ‘if students did pay tuition, it is reasonable to expect that they would impose their own discipline as purchasers on institutions,’ which might lead to greater ‘product differentiation’.8

Clarity of institutional status

16.15 The second pressure on the pattern of institutions comes from an apparent weakening in the responsibility and self-discipline exercised by some institutions. Our endorsement of institutional autonomy and diversity carries with it a presumption of institutional responsibility and self-discipline. We feel bound to take into account a number of recent failures in this respect: diversity must be complemented by discipline.

16.16 The first discipline, as we explored in Chapter 10, is the maintenance of standards by each institution. UK higher education will benefit from a clearer specification of standards for its output. In our proposals this will be a part of higher education’s compact with students and the rest of society. Institutional autonomy and diversity should be exercised in a way that safeguards standards and the quality of the student experience of higher education at each institution.

16.17 The second discipline which concerns us here is the title and name used by institutions to describe themselves to students and others. In the interests of public understanding there needs to be clarity and consistency in the use of both institutional titles (that is, how the Privy Council or Secretary of State has named the institution) and the use of institutional names (that is, how the institution describes itself to students and the wider public). At present, titles and names do not always match. Nor do they always define sufficiently clearly membership of a particular institutional category. While a number of institutions have adopted names which they feel properly reflect their status, some of these might be described as owing more to aspiration than to the present facts. It has been put to us that a small number of institutions have exploited a perceived difference in the law concerning the name under which they operate and the law concerning the legal title. This applies particularly to the use in public statements of the word ‘university’ within the name of institutions which do not carry that legal title and to the use of descriptors such as ‘university sector’ which have no legal basis. This is confusing and misleading for students and others. It also leads to weakened public confidence in the sector.

16.18 We consider it an important principle that there should be recognised criteria associated with each institutional title and type of institutional category. It should be made clear to institutions that the requirements of the Business Names Act 1985 and the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 restrict the use of names and titles. There should no longer be scope for any discrepancy between the legal title of the institution and the name it uses where this would be misleading.

Recommendation 62
We recommend to the Government that it takes action as soon as possible to end the scope for a confusion between the title and the name used by institutions, either through clarifying the legal position or by ensuring that conditions can be placed on the flow of public funds so that these go only to those institutions which agree to restrict their use of a name and title to that to which they are legally entitled.

16.19 The prevailing structure of institutions in the United Kingdom is the product of two recent pieces of legislation which caused significant change to the category and legal status of large numbers of institutions. The Education Reform Act 1988 made the polytechnics and colleges corporate bodies and removed them from the auspices of the local education authorities. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 in effect re-created the polytechnics as universities, bestowing on them the defining characteristics of a university: the power to award their own taught and research degrees.

16.20 In other countries we visited, especially elsewhere in Europe, publicly-funded institutions appear to have a more fixed pattern, determined centrally; there are clearly understood institutional types and titles; and there appear to be no mechanisms by which individual institutions can, through their own actions, seek to change matters. By contrast, the UK higher education sector has benefited from Robbins’ emphasis on organic growth. It has afforded institutions freedom to develop in the light of prevailing circumstances and their own objectives. The 1992 Act gives the Secretary of State and Privy Council powers to make a formal change in an institution’s title or category, in response to their aspirations. Within this framework, and in the context of recent growth, some institutions have sought changes in their category and some proposals have been made to establish additional universities. As a result, the reality is, in some ways, less clear-cut than the legislation would imply.

The characteristics of universities
16.21 In our view, the important defining characteristic of a university is the power to award taught and research degrees which then carry the university’s name. This was recognised when the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 enabled the polytechnics to obtain degree-awarding powers and to acquire the title and status of universities. Subsequently, numerical criteria have been developed to help assess the cases made by non-university institutions to acquire university status. These numerical criteria refer to the size of the institution and to the spread of academic disciplines offered. We think that these numerical criteria threaten to distort some aspects of institutional behaviour, as institutions seek to acquire a status they perceive to be particularly valuable.

16.22 In addition to the numerical criteria, non-university institutions seeking university status are expected to have taught degree awarding powers and research degree awarding powers and to have demonstrated their ability to maintain degree standards when using these powers for three years. Representatives of a number of institutions that would wish to be accorded this status told us that they found the current situation unhelpful because it leads students and others to misconstrue their academic standing. These institutions, each of which has been granted taught degree awarding powers, stated that they already had sufficient other evidence about the quality of their research to render the three year waiting period subsequent to the granting of research degree awarding powers an unnecessary, if not irrelevant, precaution.

16.23 Binding the award of university status directly to the power to award degrees bearing the institution’s name means that the arrangements for awarding those powers are particularly important. We urge in Chapter 10 that the Quality Assurance Agency review these arrangements, on which advice to the Secretary of State and Privy Council is based. In our view, it is important to safeguard the use by universities of the power to make awards which have the general standing and national and international currency of a degree. We have emphasised the importance of the way these powers are discharged within institutions in Chapter 15.

16.24 The debate about the university title is sensitive: we would not wish to disappoint the hard work of a small number of institutions which are very close to satisfying the present criteria for the award of university status and which might feel themselves aggrieved were the rules to be changed now. Their aspirations should continue to be tested against the present criteria. But we do see advantage, after the rapid developments of recent years, in a period of relative stability in the number of universities, with the award of university status used more sparingly, related less to the achievement of the present numerical criteria and more in recognition of a distinctive role and characteristics.

16.25 We also see advantages for amalgamations of institutions, particularly of smaller institutions. The strength of such cases would be judged against educational criteria, including whether this is likely to make for better quality, and financial criteria, including cost-effectiveness. Individual institutions are not necessarily disinterested judges of such matters. We make these comments out of recognition that, with so much happening so quickly, there has been no opportunity to stand back and reflect on the needs of the sector overall, as well as the aspirations and achievements of individual institutions. There has been little incentive in circumstances of growth for some institutions to consider whether, in the best interests of higher education, they should merge with another institution. We think it is timely for such consideration but we have not, however, had time during our review to go into this issue in any detail and we do not make any specific recommendations.

Recommendation 63
We recommend to the Government that, in the medium term, there is no change to the current criteria for university status; but that, for the future, there should be a period of relative stability in the number of universities, with the weight accorded to the numerical criteria reduced and greater emphasis placed on a distinctive role and characteristics in awarding this status; and that the Government should give notice of this

16.26 It was also suggested to us that, whilst the criteria for achieving the university title should be made less burdensome, equally, it should be possible for the powers to award degrees to be removed from an institution, and that this precaution would actually serve to strengthen the important protection of the essential characteristics of universities. The Higher Education Quality Council drew to our attention to apparent anomaly that, whilst the removal of degree awarding powers appears to be possible in Scotland for the 1992 universities, this does not appear to be the case in England or Wales, nor to apply to chartered universities.9 We think this should be changed, although we are sensitive to the historic powers granted by individual charters.

Recommendation 64
We recommend to the Government that it takes action, either by amending the powers of the Privy Council or by ensuring that conditions can be placed on the flow of public funds, to enable the removal of degree awarding powers where the Quality Assurance Agency demonstrates that the power to award degrees has been seriously abused.

Rest of chapter