The Origins of the Current ‘Crisis’ Facing British Universities: Ideology or Incrementalism

  • John BaldockEmail author


This chapter discusses claims that the UK system of higher education faces a crisis of both legitimacy and adequate resources. Competing explanations for this possible ‘crisis’ are compared and placed in the context of changes to the funding and regulation of universities. At the beginning of the 2020s British higher education, and in particular its universities, have a problem of declining incomes together with rising demand from growth in numbers aged between 18 and 24. Before the impact of Covid 19 a high proportion of institutions were in financial difficulty and were reducing staff numbers. There had been growing criticism of universities, from within for becoming too managerialist, commercial and market-focussed, and from outside for failing to meet key needs of society and the economy; such as equality of access for those from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds, and the production of graduates with the skills required by employers. Some commentators have attributed these challenges to the recent strength of right-wing and populist forces, and ideas which question the role and usefulness of higher education and support for increased government control and regulation. The chapter argues instead that the current problems of universities are not new, but have a longer history, and largely be explained by incremental changes to the funding of higher education over the last seventy years.


  1. Anderson, Perry. 1992. English Questions. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  2. Andrews, Jon, Emily Hunt, and Bobbie Mills. 2019. General Election 2019: An Analysis of the Manifesto Plans for Education. London: Education Policy Institute/Nuffield Foundation.Google Scholar
  3. Belfield, Chris, Jack Britton, Lorraine Dearden, and Laura Van Der Erve. 2017. Higher Education Funding in England: Past, Present and Options for the Future, IFS Briefing Note BN211. London: The Institute for Fiscal Studies.Google Scholar
  4. Bolton, Paul. 2019. House of Commons Library Briefing Paper: Number 7393, 4 January 2019: Higher Education Funding in England. London: UK House of Commons.Google Scholar
  5. Brown, Roger, and Helen Carosso. 2013. Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Collini, Stefan. 2012. What Are Universities For? London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  7. ———. 2017. Speaking of Universities. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  8. Edgerton, David. 2009. The Haldane Principle and Other Invented Traditions in Science Policy. History and Policy 88.Google Scholar
  9. Foer, Franklin. 2019. Viktor Orbán’s War on Intellect. The Atlantic, June 2019.Google Scholar
  10. Henry, Julie. 2019. University of Lancaster Takes on Too Many Students to Fit in Its Lecture Halls – And Tells Those Paying £9k-a-Year They Must Watch Lectures from Their Laptops. The Mail, November 10.Google Scholar
  11. Hofstadter, Richard. 1966. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  12. House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (HC 963). 2018. The Higher Education Market: Forty-Fifth Report of Session 2017–19. UK Parliament. Accessed on 5 Jan 2020.
  13. House of Commons Education Committee (HC 343). 2018. Value for Money in Higher Education, Seventh Report of Session 2017–19. UK Parliament. Accessed on 5 Jan 2020.
  14. Johnson, Paul. 2009. Intellectuals. London: Harper Collins.Google Scholar
  15. Jones, Owen. 2020. We Will All Pay for the Crisis in Our Universities. The Guardian, February 14.Google Scholar
  16. Kernohan, David. 2020. The Nine Worst Policy Debacles of the Last Decade. WonkHe, January 08. Accessed on 11 Jan 2020.
  17. Neves, Jonathan, and Nick Hillman. 2019. Student Academic Experience Survey 2019. Oxford: Higher Education Policy Institute.Google Scholar
  18. Office of Budget Responsibility. 2017. Fiscal Stability Report 2017. London: Stationary Office.Google Scholar
  19. Owen, Tom. 2006. The University Grants Committee. Oxford Review of Education 6 (3): 255–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Sandiford, Josh. 2020. No Room for You in Lectures, Top Universities Tell First-Year Students. The Guardian, February 15.Google Scholar
  21. Secretary of State for Education by Command of Her Majesty (CP 117). 2019. Independent Panel Report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding Presented to Parliament. London: The Stationary Office.Google Scholar
  22. Shattock, Michael. 2012. Making Policy in British Higher Education 1945–2011. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Sowell, Thomas. 2009. Intellectuals and Society. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  24. Thompson, Edward Palmer, ed. 1970. Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the Universities. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  25. Vivian, David, Andrew S. James, Daniel Salamons, Zainab Hazel, Jonnie Felton, and Sam Whittaker. 2019. Evaluation of Provider Level TEF 2016–17 (Year 2): Measuring the Initial Impact of the TEF on the Higher Education Landscape. London: Department for Education.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of KentCanterburyUK

Personalised recommendations