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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Professor Gareth Williams – his contribution to British higher education

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’.


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David Watson 1949-2015 : A tribute

By Paul Temple

In his first few days working at the Institute of Education in London, David Watson, who died on 8 February this year after a short illness, was drafted in to chair the exam board for an MA programme about which he knew nothing, and which involved some tricky procedural matters. Afterwards, I overheard the experienced course administrator for that programme say to our own course administrator, ‘Your David Watson – he’s awfully good, isn’t he?’ David would have relished the compliment, coming from one of the ordinary members of staff who keep universities running, and would almost certainly have valued it at least as much as the many tributes paid to him in the days immediately after his death by grand figures in the higher education world.

This was because David appreciated that leadership involved understanding the details of how organisations work, the nuts and bolts that hold them together Continue reading