The purpose of this paper is to explore the links between the state and higher education in contemporary England with particular reference to how that relationship shapes institutional development. The argument is that higher education institutions develop within the context of a state-regulated market. Policy-goals are determined politically, the quasi-state shapes how those goals are to be implemented and institutions, functioning within that framework, steer their patterns of development driven by their internal interests.
The second part of the paper examines the complex relationship of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to the state-regulated market. It analyses the range of their responses, the initiatives they have pursued to ensure their continuing status and what impact this has had upon their respective collegial traditions.
The paper concludes by presenting alternative scenarios for the future development of Oxford and Cambridge as collegiate universities, and by analysing the possible move from a state-regulated to a free market as the main driving force in shaping higher education development in England. Download working paper.
Central to this article is the argument that almost universally the process of institutional change in higher education has to be located within the broader context of the governance of national systems. The proposition is that individual institutions shape their development within a policy framework that has been created over time by national political inputs. The reason for the focus on institutional change in the English, rather than the British, higher education model is because its pattern of governance has moved away from that which prevails in the other nations of the British Isles, and in particular from the Scottish model.
The focus on the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge) is purposeful. While in part the two universities have been rewritten over the years by state intervention, more than other English universities they can claim that they do not owe their contemporary shape to their incorporation in a policy framework that has been determined by a nationally-driven political process. It has been widely argued that Oxbridge has par excellence been the representative of the traditional English model of the university. While both universities have been influenced by political intervention institutional change always had to encompass the established collegial tradition, to work with on-going values, patterns of authority and purposes rather than seek to undermine them directly. In a sense Oxbridge provides a potent test case for the effectiveness of the current model of governance in English higher education. Can there be a meaningful accommodation between Oxbridge’s heritage and the role it has to play within contemporary English higher education?
The article will conclude by offering a prognosis for the future. Firstly, it will analyse Oxbridge’s likely evolutionary pattern of change. The key issue is whether the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge will remain essentially national institutions, bounded by the policies of the English state or will they become a detached apex increasingly measuring their performance in global terms? In that context it is not only a question of how the overall structural model of English higher education is to be interpreted but also what becomes of Oxbridge’s collegial tradition. Secondly, it will consider the evolution of the model of governance that will shape the parameters within which individual institutions determine their development. Will a free market replace the state-regulated market?
It should be said at the outset that this is an article that attempts to be conceptual and analytical rather than theoretical. The focus, with particular reference to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, is upon the process of contemporary change in English higher education but rather than offering a theory of change it presents the parameters that it believes any such theory needs to incorporate: the potency of the state-regulated market, the criticality of institutional resource dependency, the decision-making process within universities (how authority is internally distributed), and how the interactive process of state, society and the university actually functions in relation to particular policy outcomes. Theory construction requires an interpretation of the exercise of power within the higher education policy-making process. This article should be seen as a stepping-stone towards achieving that goal.