Times Higher Education: 50 years of critical friendship – Times Higher Education (THE)

Of course, it would have been difficult, in 1981, for the universities to have been made to continue expanding in the face of reduced funding because they still maintained the substance – threadbare perhaps – of autonomy. They were still seen, and saw themselves, almost as a separate estate of the realm, protected from political interference by the buffer of the UGC. They still had the power – just about – to refuse to expand if the price was the erosion of what they saw as a “proper” university education.

As THES editor I observed that autonomy at first hand. The 1981 cuts were not applied equally by the UGC and I was given a preview of the winners and losers by the committee chair Edward Parkes at least two days before the secretary of state for education, Mark Carlisle, knew anything. Funding decisions were still seen as an essentially private matter between the universities and their friends.

A quarter of a century later, as vice-chancellor of Kingston University, I was reminded how things had changed. After a civil servant had spent some weeks at Kingston on an “immersion programme”, I received a thank-you letter from her boss saying how much she had enjoyed spending time in a “delivery organization”. Another country indeed.

This erosion of autonomy, after expansion, was the big change during my years as editor – and, sadly, it has accelerated since. It was the encroachment of Whitehall officialdom, followed later by Westminster politicking, that