19 March 2018
Thinking about the history of higher education over the last 200 years, some key events spring to mind. The Robbins Report; the Dearing Report; the “cuts” of 1981; the end of the binary divide. However, few people would think of the Universities’ Deputation of 1918.

2018, of course, marks the centenary of the end of the First World War.  As with many other aspects of British society, the War had a massive impact on the universities, changes that culminated in a memorable meeting on 23 November 1918, only days after the War had ended.  This meeting deserves to be recognised as a turning point for British higher education, yet it is barely known.

Before the War, universities were largely private institutions, dependent upon fees and philanthropy for their income.  Government support was growing, but still small; Government regulation was limited.  Moreover, Government saw little need for further involvement.  Research activity was poorly funded and largely restricted to enthusiasts or those able to attract wealthy benefactors.  The numbers aspiring to study were beginning to grow, as educational reforms began to have an impact, but universities remained remote from the huge majority of the population.

The outbreak of War in August 1914 came as a massive shock. As male students volunteered or were called up, student numbers fell sharply.  Universities saw their revenues significantly reduced. Yet, at the same time, the universities rallied to the war effort. Staff and students joined the armed forces in large numbers.  Those remaining contributed hugely to the home front, in munitions work, hospitals, food production and diverse other activities.  University buildings were taken over for military purposes; university expertise was diverted to support the War. Most important, perhaps, was a  growing realisation that the universities could no longer survive in isolation from Government.   Financial assistance was sought as compensation for lost fee income.  Eventually, these approaches were accepted.  Thereby, Government began to acknowledge the importance of the universities to the War effort and their likely role in post-War rebuilding; and to accept that it had some responsibility for regulating that activity.

By 1916, universities had, by and large, developed “coping” strategies and by 1917 both universities and Government were looking ahead to the end of the War, with the prospect of increased student numbers and a stronger commitment to research. There could be no return to the status quo ante. Most important was the position now taken up by Government that the universities formed part of a “system” that should work to the national benefit, a system that should, at least partially, be funded by the state and over which some degree of oversight should be exercised.

Some universities were uneasy with these changes, but most saw no alternative if they were to meet the post-War challenges. Infrastructure was poor and financial vulnerability remained, especially in the “new” universities.  Serious concerns were voiced about staffing, including issues of pay and conditions, superannuation, the absence of a clear career structure for non-professorial staff, excessive workloads and poor opportunities for research.  These concerns culminated in a memorandum prepared by the newly formed Association of University Lecturers in the summer of 1918 and widely circulated among universities.

A consensus developed that new arrangements were needed for the funding and operation of the universities.  This was the stimulus for the meeting on 23 November 1918 attended by representatives of 32 universities and colleges, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Education.

The meeting took the form of a series of presentations by the universities.   Vice-Chancellors emphasized the significance of Government funding if universities were to fulfil their role in the economy and in society generally.  Adverse comparisons were drawn with state funding of universities in the United States.  A simplified system was needed.  Instead of multiple, small ad hoc grants from different Government departments, a single consolidated “block” grant was needed.  Grants for capital expenditure, previously fiercely opposed by the Treasury, were required.  Additional funding would allow universities to pay increased salaries, helping them to recruit and retain talented staff and enhancing their professional status relative to other professions.  Speakers placed a particular emphasis on the development of a new career structure for academic staff, with the establishment of positions of Senior Lecturer and Reader between the Lecturer and Professor.  They also pressed for increased payments to Professors.  The importance of supporting more students to enter universities and from a wider social background was discussed, with Vice-Chancellors advocating both a reduction in fees and use of differential fees, by Faculty and, possibly, by location. The significance of scientific research, especially the advances made during the War, was also highlighted. 

At the end of the meeting, Herbert Fisher, President of the Board of Education. was non-committal.  However, he did conclude: “I am convinced – and my conviction has been deepened by the impressive mass of testimony which I have heard today – of the necessity of a very much more liberal assistance from the State to the higher learning in the country.”

Looking back, a century later, the Deputation represented a public and mutual endorsement of the new relationship between Government and universities that would dominate the rest of the twentieth century. The meeting marked a turning point in the development of higher education as a “system”.  It is no co-incidence that three key bodies were all founded in 1918-19 – the University Grants Committee (UGC), the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) and the Association of University Teachers (AUT) (formed from the earlier Association of University Lecturers). Universities needed Government funding, both recurrent and capital, and could no longer rely on fees and philanthropy.  Government recognized the role of universities in developing the educated, skilled workforce and the new knowledge necessary to ensure economic competitiveness.  Government accepted a new responsibility.  As a consequence, universities faced new oversight and regulation.  The Deputation of November 1918 deserves to be remembered as a turning point, and remains relevant today.