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Week beginning 17/04/17

Universities and Polytechnics: 25 years since the end of the binary divide

This article reflects upon the legacy of a dual system of higher education – when providers were split into ‘polytechnics’ and ‘universities’ – that officially ended 25 years ago last month. Polytechnics were supposed to be vocationally-oriented and attract local residents. The binary system was initially developed in order to prevent ‘academic drift’, the author explains, ‘whereby institutions set up for one purpose (say offering locally orientated vocational courses) drifted to emulate other more prestigious institutions’.

Since polytechnics were designed for the local community, they were run very differently from universities, with staff being employees of a local authority. Moreover, degrees from polytechnics were awarded by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) rather than the higher education institutions themselves. Since the CNAA oversaw polytechnic degrees, and professional courses taught at polytechnics such as engineering were rigorously monitored by the relevant accreditation bodies, many believed that the quality of education received at many of these institutions rivalled that at universities.  

Notably, Anglia polytechnic was the last degree-awarding institution to drop the ‘polytechnic’ from its name, having only attained that status the year before the Education Act was passed. It became Anglia Ruskin as recently as 2005, after the eminent artist John Ruskin, who gave the inaugural address at the opening of the Cambridge School of Art, which would eventually become Anglia Ruskin, in 1858. Some post-1992 universities added ‘Metropolitan’ or local rivers to their names to distinguish them from pre-1992 universities with which they shared cities (Manchester Metropolitan, Nottingham Trent and the like). Ulster Polytechnic was the only polytechnic to merge with a nearby university.

Academic freedom versus regulation

This opinion piece sets out some of the main arguments for a more rigorous approach to academic regulation, as the author claims that the freedom that higher education institutions have enjoyed until now has enabled them to ignore relatively poor levels of student satisfaction. ‘For any service sector with humility’ he claims, ‘these statistics would be a source of shame, and reason for regulators to intervene. But in higher education, our funding council wrote that “this year’s [National Student] Survey remains very positive, demonstrating the commitment of all higher education providers to deliver high quality teaching and learning for their students”’. The author, CEO of University of East Anglia Students’ Union, thinks that this special treatment of universities, the veneration of academic ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’, has worked to the detriment of student experience.

He does, however, acknowledge that ‘there is a reasonable argument within higher education that regards students being seen as “consumers” as a problem’, which complicates this comparison between education and other service sector providers. ‘Educational outcomes aren’t bought and sold, they’re co-produced’ he says,  ‘and just as customers of the local gym have to turn up and pump some iron to get fit, so students have to take some responsibility for their own learning to get their qualification and progress their career’.

Highlights from the week’s papers

Student loan interest rate set to rise by a third after a UK inflation surge driven by pound’s Brexit slide.

What a general election could mean for Higher Education. Ahead of 8 June, there is already speculation over the impact of an election on the Education Bill due to return to the Commons next week.