The old Soviet system of over-bureaucratisation did not die with the USSR; it transmigrated into Britain’s higher education system.
When I started lecturing nearly 40 years ago, universities were responsible to the University Grants Committee, a benign set of mandarins in London who exercised a hands-off supervision of British universities. Academics were largely free to get on with their own work, which was mainly teaching the 10 per cent of the population who went to university on a grant paid for by the state, and writing research papers and books.
In so far as anyone worried about assessing the quality of such work, it was assumed that the degree results reflected the teaching, while the peer-reviewing process validated the research.
The system reflected the intellectual self-confidence of an elite higher education system which, overall, relied on the professional pride of its practitioners. It was an ecosystem that Blessed John Henry Newman would have recognised as an organic development of his own Idea of a University. Such attitudes did not survive the expansion of the higher education system in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The Thatcher governments were profoundly suspicious of the professions, regarding them as the middle-class equivalent of the trades union “closed shop”.
They were determined to open them up to competition. Measures were introduced to assess the quality of research and teaching, but as the former was rewarded financially and the latter was not – and human nature being what it is – universities tended to concentrate more on research. It was not that they neglected teaching, but if their research stars needed more time for work that would bring in large sums of money from the quinquennial Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) then they would be given it, and postgraduates would be brought in to teach.
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