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Professor Gareth Williams – his contribution to British higher education

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Gareth Williams came from a family of Welsh schoolteachers – both parents, brother and sister. At age 11 he won a scholarship to Framlingham College in Suffolk, from where he later won a place at St John’s College, Cambridge to read economics. On graduation, as the result of an undergraduate paper on the economics of education contributed to the Cambridge Political Economy Society, he was appointed to a research post at the Agricultural Economics Research Unit at Oxford. From there he moved on to his first love, the economics of education, in a post in OECD working on econometric models of education, including the application of forecasting models. In 1968 he became Joint Director of the Higher Education Research Unit, the group which had worked under Claus (Lord) Moser on the statistics and forecasts of the Robbins Committee which had now transferred to LSE. Five years later at the age of 37 he was appointed at Lancaster as Professor of Educational Planning and Director of the Institute for Research and Development in Post Compulsory Education. In 1984 he accepted an invitation to join the Institute of Education (now part of UCL) as Professor of Educational Administration where he established the Centre for Higher Education Studies (CHES) which became a leading centre for research and policy studies in the field. On his retirement Ron Barnett, Paul Temple and Peter Scott edited a festschrift, Valuing Higher Education (UCL Institute of Education Press 2016) which brought together contributions from academic colleagues from around the world stimulated by his work.

Gareth’s move from OECD to LSE gave him the opportunity to broaden his interests in higher education policy from the more technical work on which he was engaged in Paris. A good example of this was his keynote chapter, ‘The scale of expansion to come’ written with Richard (now Lord) Layard in the enormously influential Penguin Special, Patterns and Policies in Higher Education (Brosan, G, Carter, C, Layard, R and Williams, G 1971). A single passage on the value of forecasting – the chapter was mainly concerned with the Department of Education and Science’s (DES) failure in this – captures Gareth’s authentic voice as an economic generalist and policy scholar:

“Forecasting is not an academic pursuit to be judged by whether it gives rise to true or false propositions. It is an operational exercise to be judged by whether it gives rise to better decisions than would have been taken without it. So long as there is planning, that is to say an organised attempt to achieve consistency between the activities of different agents, there must be forecasting.”

While at LSE he also produced, in conjunction with Tessa Blackstone and David Metcalf, the influential The Academic Labour Market. Economic and social aspects of a profession (Elsevier 1974) a far cry from the econometric modelling of countries like Greece which he had undertaken at OECD. Years later his inaugural lecture at the Institute, ‘New Ways of Paying the Piper’ again illustrated how he could employ an exploration of policy, informed by economics, to stimulate fresh ideas.

The editors of the Valuing Higher Education festschrift bring out effectively the extent to which his work extends beyond a narrow economic approach ‘to take a broad and inter connected view’ of policy issues and they list a series of quotations from Gareth’s works which are well worth recalling both from the perspective of when written and from the travails of today:

“The main weakness of the market model results from its possible effects on the supply of educational services ….unrestricted competition can lead to reductions in quality as institutions indulge in price competition and hard selling tactics” (in Clark, BR (Ed) Perspectives in Higher Education, University of California Press 1984, p 97).

“The relationship between higher education institutions and the society which surrounds them is a reciprocal one. It is a partnership … any government that attempts to use its control of the purse as a way of controlling academic life risks having a very mediocre intellectual elite and graduates who are unable to take initiatives” (Williams, G Changing Patterns of Finance in Higher Education Open University Press 1992 p 85).

“A university that divorces itself entirely from society rapidly becomes an irrelevant ivory tower [but] equally, one that only responds to outside pressures cannot perform its proper function of disinterested scholarship, research and criticism….[However] there is no single correct balance between the two extremes” (ibid).

One of Gareth’s great abilities was a facility to disentangle long range policy issues, a skill well demonstrated in the book quoted from above. His views were frequently sought by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee and a good example of his understanding of the issues surrounding system change can be found in a paper he wrote for the Committee in 2000 setting out his thoughts on these long term questions:

“The critical public policy challenges for the next decade are:

  • To set acceptable ground rules for institutional differentiation so as to continue to meet the claims of international recognised excellence in research and teaching while increasing social inclusion and encouraging lifelong learning.
  • To seize the opportunities offered by information technology to improve the quality of learning and reduce unit costs further while maintaining and enhancing appropriate standards across the sector.
  • To improve the funding arrangements and to promote better understanding of the relationship between public and private funding.”

(House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Employment, paper HE27, 2000)

Looking back from a standpoint of now 20 years or so it is difficult to fault his analysis and its continuing relevance.

As a major figure both in the UK and the international scholarly community it was natural that Gareth would play a leading role in the affairs of SRHE. He was chair of the Society for two periods, 1977-79 and 1986-88, served for a period as General Editor of the Higher Education Quarterly and became an Honorary Fellow of the Society. For 15 years (1984-1999) he and I jointly chaired a bi-monthly SRHE Policy Forum which Gareth hosted at the Institute. But undoubtedly his largest contribution was as Director of the Leverhulme Programme of Study into the Future of Higher Education 1980-1983. This was conceived by Gareth who also took responsibility for leading the campaign to resource the Study.

By 1980 the furthest extension of the Robbins student number forecasts had been reached and the latest publication from the Department of Education and Science had suggested a fall thereafter; the government was showing no interest in any follow up inquiry. Persuaded by Gareth, the Society took up the challenge, an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking for it to have contemplated. The Study, funded by the Leverhulme Foundation with some contribution from the Gulbenkian Foundation, consisted of a series of seminars, each chaired by someone senior from outside higher education, with invited speakers who for a fee presented well researched findings in the specialist topic of the seminar. The Study extended over two and a half years and was concluded by a single policy meeting which made a wide ranging set of recommendations. Each seminar was the subject of a full report in the Times Higher Education Supplement and in book form in the name of the seminar convenor. The success of the Programme lay in the seminars and their related publications, the product of what one American participant described as ‘the rolling Leverhulme crap game’, rather than in the final recommendations, because what it did was to open higher education policy issues to wider discussion and induct a range of participants into the practice of debating them. Peter Brooke, the Minister for Higher Education called it ‘probably the most systematic review of [UK] higher education policy by an organisation outside government that has ever been undertaken’ (Shattock M, SRHE, 1990).

The Leverhulme process of expert seminars showed Gareth at his best. A superb lecturer and teacher, his reputation also depended on his interventions from the audience in conferences, colloquia and seminars up and down the country and internationally. An accomplished debating agent provocateur he was never happier than putting forward alternative and plausible arguments against those advanced by the speaker, and always with good humour, suggesting contrary points of view. He had the unique ability to turn a rather plodding address into a lively discussion bristling with further questions and counter propositions. He brought a sense of intellectual challenge which the higher education community will very much miss.

Gareth was responsible for my invitation to a visiting position at the Institute in 1999. One outcome was the MBA in Higher Education Management in 2002 of which we were Joint Directors and Paul Temple was a key member of the team (and a later Joint Director of the programme with David Watson) The MBA differentiated itself from MA programmes in higher education because it approached topics via a management perspective while retaining a strong scholarly approach. We wanted it to breathe some new life into the running of institutions and higher education systems in these difficult times. As a programme it flourished, with many of its participants going on to high ranking positions in the system. Gareth brought to the programme just those characteristics of robust questioning of established nostra and the need for open discussion of issues that he brought to his academic life as a whole.

The British higher education community has lost a key scholar and communicator of ideas with a unique impact on research, teaching and policy in higher education.

Michael Shattock

Michael Shattock is a Visiting Professor at the UCL Institute of Education and an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Education at Oxford. His latest book, with Aniko Horvath, is ‘The Governance of British Higher Education: The impact of governmental, financial and market pressures’.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “Professor Gareth Williams – his contribution to British higher education

  1. Memories of Gareth Williams

    “Education in the real sense is probably the one hope for mankind. I’m sure it is.”

    The news of Gareth Williams’ death on 25 August 2021 prompted an unprecedented flood of tributes from friends and colleagues, past and present. Mike Shattock’s above obituary describes Gareth’s massive impact on policy, research and teaching in HE. SRHE Director Helen Perkins noted the personal qualities “recognised by his friends and colleagues within the Society, contemporaries, and students, many now themselves professors in research into higher education. Many mention the same three characteristics which marked him out as special; someone who was kind and supportive with colleagues and students alike, genuinely interested in other people across the generations and intellectually very sharp indeed. Always a pleasure to work with, he wore his wide knowledge and many achievements very lightly.”

    Gareth’s Lancaster colleagues:
    Oliver Fulton: “Gareth was a lovely man and I owe him a lot in career and intellectual terms. He was a crucial founder (or almost) member of the Department of Educational Research and very much responsible for the start of its higher education focus which was virtually unique at the time. Working with him was uniformly fun despite the stretch required to try to think like an economist (never quite successful in my case). He introduced me to a whole set of networks which stood me in very good stead … a serious person but very warm and supportive with it.”
    Paul Trowler: “… a warm person, intellectually sharp and engaged. He had left the Department before I arrived but he made a really positive impression on me – someone who was kind, genuinely interested in other people”.
    Murray Saunders: “Gareth was a good man and made a serious and very well received contribution to the field. He was also great company, had a sardonic humour and was kind to us budding researchers all those years ago.”

    His IoE colleague Paul Temple: “Gareth was one of the foremost scholars of the economics of higher education of the later decades of the twentieth century. In the 1970s and 1980s he helped lay the foundations for developing SRHE into the world-leading learned society that it is today. The list of contributors to the Leverhulme Study’s reports reads like a roll-call of the scholars and practitioners (some were both) who to a large extent created what we now think of as Britain’s distinctive contribution to higher education studies: Tyrell Burgess, Maurice Kogan, John Pratt, Michael Shattock, Peter Scott, John Sizer, William Taylor, and Leslie Wagner among them, with international contributions from Robert Berdahl, Burton Clark, and Guy Neave. He and Professor Michael Shattock in 2001 co-founded the novel MBA programme in Higher Education Management – as the Institute’s then Director Geoff Whitty remarked, a retirement project which he hoped would keep the two of them out of trouble.

    Inevitably in today’s world of higher education, Gareth’s wider reputation rests largely on his research and scholarship. But for many of us, it is as a teacher that he will be best remembered; and, for some of us, as a teacher of teachers. In particular, I have always followed Gareth’s guidance on the role of the doctoral supervisor. The requirement here is that for the early part of the doctoral journey, the supervisor’s job is to make life difficult for the student: “What’s your basis for saying that?”, “This doesn’t make sense to me”, and so on. But there comes a point when the relationship should change, and the student and supervisor then form a conspiracy to outwit the examiners: “Supposing they ask you…”, “Avoid mentioning…”, and so on. Seeing the supervisory role in this way helps, I think, to avoid many of the complaints – often justifiable – that doctoral students raise.

    Gareth’s work is recognised around the world wherever higher education is studied, and he will be badly missed by his many international collaborators and friends, just as much as by his former students, colleagues and friends here.”

    IoE colleague Ron Barnett: “Gareth has been a massive influence on my career and life. The Leverhulme Study of Higher Education was a quite extraordinary achievement that surely didn’t receive the recognition that it was due. I owe Gareth a very great deal. He appointed me to my first academic position, in 1990. I had been working for many years in academic administration and although I had a few papers under my belt, it must have still been a bit of a risk to take me on. Gareth showed tremendous faith in me, asking me to lead the MA in Higher Education that he had established. Our intellectual interests were quite different – Gareth’s in economics and administration and mine in philosophy and social theory – but I received nothing but continuing support from him. Gareth was the epitome of a scholar-teacher, generous to his colleagues and helpful to his students. Not once did I see him become impatient with, or speak ill of, others. In the Institute Gareth adjusted to continuing waves of academic restructuring, taking on successive roles of departmental or section head, calmly and with good humour. His formal response to my professorial inaugural lecture, delivered with characteristic charm and generosity, was a model of graciousness and intellectual weight. I was very happy that Paul Temple, Peter Scott and I were able to bring out a Festschrift in honour of Gareth and his work. Its theme was connectedness – Gareth was able to see and intuit connections across so many aspects of his work and academic life, imparting an economic perspective but looking beyond, to see the limitations of markets and make connections with social policy and human interests, and affirm the need for continuing research into higher education and from many angles. A person of utter integrity and humanity, Gareth was unfailingly courteous and self-effacing but yet able to get things done. Many have much to be grateful to Gareth in so many ways, and I am one of those.”

    Academic colleague John Brennan (Open University) told the story of a lunchtime discussion to discuss possible projects, research interests, and opportunities for research collaboration. “Long and detailed menus arrived, so our research conversation ceased; after a few minutes of silent appraisals Gareth said to me: “John, let me just explain something to you. What we are doing now is what economists would refer to as ‘the diseconomies of choice’”. Always the economist. But always brought some humour with him. We’ll miss him.”

    SRHE News Editor Rob Cuthbert said: “Gareth was generous with his support for new academics, including me – I had regular invitations to the Policy Forum he and Mike Shattock had established, which was a brilliant bringing together of the right policy people, academic researchers and managers. As an economist manqué I could never quite bring myself to think like an economist but Gareth’s great strength was that he never thought only as an economist, but was open to ideas from all quarters. My review of the Festschrift for Gareth said:

    “Gareth Williams helped to create higher education as a distinctive field for study. He never staked out disciplinary or sectoral boundaries; although his starting point was an economic view he was never constrained by it. Perfectly titled, Valuing Higher Education, the book published following Gareth’s Festschrift in 2016 (Barnett, Scott and Temple) is a fitting tribute to his work, organised by contemporary themes – marketing, the academic life, and the uses of higher education – which reflect Williams’ constant concern to make research and teaching influential and relevant for policy. The contributions from many leading academics recapitulate theory and policy development in ways that provide a valuable overview for students, policymakers and researchers alike, and remind us how Gareth Williams has played his part in shaping the whole field of research into HE.”

    Barnett, R, Temple, P, and Scott, P, (eds) 2016. Valuing Higher Education: An appreciation of the work of Gareth Williams London: UCL/IOE Press.

    He indeed wore his wide knowledge and many achievements very lightly, but Gareth could have had no doubt about the respect and affection in which he was held by his colleagues across the world of research into higher education.

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