by Michael Shattock
From decentralised to centralised
Until 1919 UK universities, except Oxbridge and Durham, were primarily civic institutions created by wealthy citizens and governed by councils strongly represented by the founders and by local authorities and the local industrial community. They were self-financed, dependent on local benevolence and tuition fees and some support by their local authorities and central government. The latter source grew steadily more important and in 1919 the Treasury established a University Grants Committee (UGC) to rationalise government grants which in the 1920s and 1930s rose to around 30% of individual universities’ expenditure. After the Second World War it was clear that this settlement was inadequate and in 1946 the Government took over the funding of universities and the terms of reference of the UGC were widened to give it a central role in the management of the university system. Policy had become centralised although institutional autonomy was pledged to be preserved.
Sixty years later the student participation rate in higher education has risen from 3% to 50%, the number of universities has increased by over six times and responsibility for higher education has been devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, leaving England, which has nearly 80% of the universities , increasingly centralised and subordinate to government in its policymaking. It is palpably evident that centralisation under an Office for Students (established as primarily a Regulator but replacing the UGC and its successor body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)) is running out of road. The system is too large, too bureaucratic and too monocentric. It fails to respond to the widespread differentiation between regions and their economic and social priorities.
Questions surrounding decentralisation of governance are increasingly being asked, starting with Michael Heseltine’s advocacy of new forms of regional leadership in the 1980s, and have become more pronounced in the ongoing debate about the UK’s economic future. McCann (2019) has argued that ‘the UK has the greatest spatial inequality in Europe’, a view endorsed by IPPR North (Webb et al, 2022) and by the Levelling Up White Paper (2022 para 1.2.1). Both major political parties appear to support decentralisation within a framework of metro mayors and combined authorities but neither has revealed the level of devolution from Whitehall they envisage. The debate has been given renewed impetus with the publication of a heavyweight report Tackling the UK’s regional economic inequality: Binding constraints and avenues for intervention (Stansbury et al, 2023) published by Harvard University and Kings College, London.
The Report, which is endorsed by a number of major political figures drawn from both sides of the political divide, backs the metro mayors and combined authorities mechanism but Part 2 of the Report, Why hasn’t UK regional policy worked?, finds the Department for Education (DfE) the department in the Government most resistant to decentralisation. The Report does not make any recommendations on governance structures for education but strongly commends the South Wales Civic Engagement Partnership (SWCEP), which involves five universities and five further education colleges, suggesting that the authors lean towards tertiary solutions. Detailed negotiations have been undertaken between the Government and the Greater Manchester and the West Midlands Combined Authorities and, according to the Chancellor’s 2023 Autumn Statement, ‘trail blazing’ Memoranda of Understanding have been agreed to establish flexible single funding settlements from the start of the next Spending Review. But decentralisation needs to go farther than this and encompass economic and social strategies and their implementation. Education and training are key elements in such policies and should constitute a crucial part of this dialogue with the aim of breaking the hold which DfE centralisation has had particularly over the last 30 years.
A second important policy driver is the need for a fusion of further and higher education into a combined tertiary education system. This has already been adopted by the devolved government in Wales, and Scotland is moving in a similar direction. England, by far the largest system, remains deeply segmented with higher education managed under the Office for Students (OfS) and further education under an Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). Historically the two organisations have not talked to one another and policy has been pursued separately although the Department has recently established a Group to bring post-16 policy and operational policy together without, as yet, any tangible results.
Evidence on the ground suggests that bringing the two sectors together would constitute a welcome coordination for institutions. In our study of the current intersectoral interface (Shattock and Horvath, 2023 Ch4) we were able to show, on a 45% return, that 89% of UK colleges had established programmatic partnerships with universities in at least one of student progression, franchising, validation arrangements or arrangements to extend apprenticeships into degree work. In some cases, Plymouth being a notable example in the South West, universities had established networks of colleges with which they collaborated. These partnerships were local or regional and primarily facilitated seamless student movement between colleges and universities, both sides benefitting from the exchange and with the partnerships themselves reflecting local or regional conditions. If we want to provide a mechanism for ‘levelling up’ this is an ideal model. Colleges have a closer reach into communities than universities but universities have the ability to open up pathways into a wider world. The Shattock and Horvath book Universities and Regions referred to above provides various specific examples of structures which have significantly widened the base of access into broader professional and regionally productive employment prospects.
But the essence of moving to a tertiary system is that it should be strongly regionally engaged, fully incorporated into regional economic and social strategies, not separated from them, and that it should reflect ‘bottom up’ policies not simply ‘top down’ decision-making. Creating a centralised tertiary education system in England would be a bureaucratic disaster because it would utilise none of the advantages of addressing regional interests differentially. It would intensify the prospect of greater contextless central management and a continued dominance of a short term and politically driven agenda. The establishment of devolved regional administrations led by metro mayors and combined authorities opens the opportunity to decentralise a merged tertiary education system which would give regions a significant stake in their further and higher education. This would leave the OfS operating simply as a Regulator and would not necessarily affect research as now handled through United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI), but it would significantly rebalance the relationship between regions and central government.
Historically the civic universities drew much of their character from their local and regional roots but these relationships have weakened as the central governance framework, the Teaching Excellence and Research Excellence Frameworks (TEF and REF) and the dependence on international student markets, have strengthened. If decentralisation has worked, as it undoubtedly has in Wales and Scotland, there is no reason to suppose it would not in England (the population of Wales, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands is respectively 3.1m, 2.8m and 2.9m). Levelling up has so far been conceived essentially as an exercise of capital investment in towns and cities; universities’ contributions have been largely in science parks and innovation hubs. Investment in human capital has been mostly ignored. A tertiary system, regionally driven, would offer a valuable complementary effect.
The student context: recruitment and graduate outcomes
An important element in the regional role of universities arises from the extent to which universities contribute by recruiting students from their region and returning them to employment there on graduation (the so called ‘graduate deposit’). This is an under researched topic partly because of the obscurity of establishing ‘graduate deposit’ data. What is clear is that the pattern of student recruitment to universities has changed. If we look at Leeds University, a perhaps typical civic university of the pre-1992 era, in 1938 it took 90% of its intake (including international students) from Yorkshire, 66% from the West Riding alone. By 1954 the Yorkshire figure had fallen to 46% and by 1964 to 28%. In 2017-18 it admitted only 14% of its home students from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority region, much of which would be classified as economically deprived. In 2017-18 only 34% of its graduates took employment in the region and this figure would have been boosted by the graduate deposit from a large medical school. By comparison Birmingham City University, which badges itself as the University for Birmingham recruited 71% of its students from the West Midlands, also an area of considerable economic deprivation, with 58% from the city of Birmingham, and returned a similar percentage of its graduates to employment in its region. In an even more economically disadvantaged region Lincoln University recruited 76% of its home intake from its region and retained 71% of its graduating class in the region (Shattock and Horvath, 2023 Ch3).
Of course these figures reflect the pre-and post-1992 divide and the league table perceptions of university applicants. They also raise issues of equality of access from deprived areas to local or regional institutions, and regional differences in the economic benefit from graduate employment to be derived from their local universities. But they also raise troubling issues for ‘levelling up’—economically and socially deprived areas will not be revived if opportunities for access from, say Hunslet, to its major regional university, Leeds, remain so restrictive or if there is no disincentive to the ‘up and away’ syndrome which encourages the flight of graduates to employment ‘hot spots’ away from their local or regional areas.
There are no easy answers to these last issues but they emphasise the importance of regional engagement in the contribution of higher education. If there is to be a more general decentralisation of government, and a devolution of functions, education should not be left behind. Universities and colleges have much to gain from a rebalancing of central and regional governance and can make, over time, a major impact on the inequalities that are entrenched in the national economy.
Michael Shattock is a Visiting Professor in Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education and Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Education, Oxford. Since 2017 he has been the leader of the governance of higher education research group in the Oxford Centre for Global Higher Education the programme for which has produced: The Governance of British Higher Education: The impact of governmental, financial and market pressures (Shattock and Horvath, Bloomsbury 2020), The Governance of European Higher Education: Convergence or Divergence? (Shattock, Horvath and Enders, Bloomsbury 2023) and Universities and Regions: The impact of locality and region on university governance and strategies, Shattock and Horvath, Bloomsbury 2023)
Levelling Up in the United Kingdom (2022) HMG Policy Paper CP 604, London
McCann, P (2019) ‘Perceptions of regional inequality and the geography of discontent: Insights from the UK’ Regional Studies DOI 10
Shattock, Michael and Horvath, Aniko (2023) Universities and Regions: The impact of locality and region on university governance and strategies London: Bloomsbury
Stansbury, A, Turner, D and Balls, E (2023) Tackling the UK’s regional economic inequality: Binding constraints and avenues for intervention Harvard University and Kings College, London Webb, JM, Johns, E, Roscoe, A, Giovannini, A, Quereshi, A and Baldwin, R (2022) The State of the North 2021-2022 Powering Northern Excellence IPPR North