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Whatever Happened to the Polytechnics? Part 1

February 27, 2018

The next few posts are based on the text of a lecture I gave last year at Newcastle College.



I should begin with the obvious  – or maybe not so obvious – apology. I first went away from home as an undergraduate in 1992/3, when the last big settlement in English higher education was achieved. I have no direct lived experience of the Polytechnics as were – not when they were under local authority control and not when they were funded separately to the university sector.

I did though study as a post-graduate in Tottenham at Middlesex’s White Hart Lane campus and during and after my doctorate I taught there as well as at Westminster.

So the question in my title is not really that of a 40-something wondering about a policy change that happened during my teenage years. Twitter users seem somewhat thrown by rhetorical questions these days.

My title is meant to point to something different. To flag up the clear problems with the current English HE system and its recent and ongoing reforms.

Which is why do Polytechnics still haunt English HE policy?[1]

In this talk, I mean to flesh this question out in two ways: concerns about the loss of diversity from English higher education – concerns about the dominance of the full-time academic undergraduate degree; and concerns about the costs of full-time study for students, graduates and the state.

My suggestion – and it’s not only my suggestion, though I will give it a different inflection – is that the original vision behind the creation of the polytechnics fifty years or so ago strikes a chord with the problems we face today.

I will begin with a couple of speeches made by Anthony Crosland, then Secretary of State for Education, setting out the ‘binary’ and the polytechnic policy. Then I will look at the contemporary issues already mentioned, before concluding with a discussion of how a revivified polytechnic might resolve some of the problems with tertiary provision, not least the unproductive focus on 16-19 year olds and the separation of further and higher education.  I do not have a fully-fledged policy to put before you – but I hope to convince you of the reasonableness of revisiting an experiment whose lessons we have not properly assessed or synthesised. As such, my title is in fact taken from the final chapter of John Pratt’s 1997 book The Polytechnic Experiment.

Crosland speeches

Crosland made two speeches around Easter 1965, a few months after the general election which brought Labour to power in October 1964. One week after addressing the National Union of Teachers in Douglas, he went to Woolwich to outline the official response to the Robbins review into higher education. In a key departure from Robbins’s proposals, Crosland announced that teacher training colleges would not be handed over to universities and would instead remain under their existing local authority and denominational control. The Douglas speech had placed these colleges on an ’emergency footing’ and it was felt unwise to change institutional structure at time of imminent rapid expansion.

Allied to this move, he outlined a binary view of higher education, which was to be developed through the polytechnic policy. 30 new public Higher Education Institutions were created between 1969 and 1973, formed largely by merging existing technical and further education colleges.

In a third major speech, at Lancaster in January 1967, Crosland reiterated and justified the new policy position – with some changes of emphasis and tone. He outlined the need for, in contrast to the “autonomous” sector of universities, a “public” HE sector that would be responsive to democratic and social control, one where elected representatives and local authorities should maintain a stake. This was taken to be a ‘valuable feature of our democratic tradition’. Though a national endeavour, each individual polytechnic was placed under Local Authority control.

As an aside: I am someone who has been involved in various campaigns about the ‘public’ university, but this distinction between public and autonomous institutions (and its history) is largely absent from debate today and we instead see in the reference to the “public university” a harking back to Robbins’ vision for why the state provides public funds (directly or indirectly) to the autonomous, private sector. This reduction of the notion of public to “no fees” fails to address the democratic deficit at the heart of the governance of private higher education institutions. A similar and related conflation sees us lose the clear distinction from the 1960s between “academic” and “liberal” education. Polytechnic enthusiasts were able to criticise both academic and vocational courses from a different position: vocational courses appeared to prepare students for only one career and academic, for none.[2] This criticism of academic provision should have more bite today when we consider the loss of joint and combined honours degrees, as much a symptom of a bad system as the loss of part-time and mature.

I am someone who thinks we are facing a democratic deficit and that rethinking social and democratic control of tertiary education provision is one reason why we might be very careful not to conflate tertiary education with higher education and higher education with the provision found in universities (private institutions, charitable for the most part).

Crosland also emphasised that diversity in the system needed to be encouraged and in 1967 pointed to both the tens of thousands of students who were pursuing undergraduate or advanced professional qualifications (rather than degrees), and the ‘army of part-time students’ already in employment. These were to be the core constituencies of the Polytechnics, alongside students on sandwich courses and those studying full-time in industry and business focused courses. By having a mix of students and courses, the Polytechnics would also be second chance institutions and work to overcome the division at 18 between university students and others. Polytechnics were to be comprehensive, primarily teaching, institutions serving diverse needs.

The aim as expressed in the Woolwich speech was:

“A vocationally oriented non-University sector which is degree-giving and with an appropriate amount of post-graduate work with opportunities for learning comparable with those of the Universities, and giving a first class professional training. … The technical college tradition is to maintain close contact with the world of employment and to provide higher education in which education and professional experience are obtained concurrently in a single integrated course.”

More than just what we would now call STEM training, the professional focus of the polytechnics would expand to those looking for careers in public administration, journalism, broadcasting, law, accountancy, architecture, banking and insurance as well as teaching following a wave of further mergers in the 1970s.

The first Crosland speech was written at a time when 6% of the age cohort went on to higher education in some form, within a decade it had reached 15% – a level it remained at for the next 15 years, prior to the rapid expansion from the late 1980s to today.

Now I do not propose here to recount the history of the subsequent 25 years through to their dissolution. But I want to emphasise these features: teaching-led; technical with focus on professions, industry and business; diverse provision (not degree-focused); and predominantly part-time / sandwich provision.

I also want to emphasise that the main problems polytechnic directors butted up against were to do with governance and budgets. Some polytechnics were soon larger than the local authorities who ran them and there were complaints about year-end virement, the inability to retain and invest surpluses and interference from the authority.

“From their earliest days there had been complaints from polytechnics about the burdens of local authority control which ranged from low level bureaucratic restrictions particularly in relation to junior staff posts to wider questions of independent decision-making over site development. One former polytechnic director reported that one of the prime reasons he had had for seeking independence was that he wanted, against the wishes of his local authority, to dispose of some off main campus assets in order to finance developments on his city centre site.”
Michael Shattuck, Making Policy in British Higher Education p. 74

Before moving on to the main part of my talk I will remind you that their disappearance took place in two steps.

Under Thatcher, the 1988 Education Reform Act saw the polytechnics moved out from local authority control and established as independent higher education corporations. This was a form of privatisation in keeping with tenor of the decade. In 1992/3, just five years later, each institution was given its own degree awarding powers, allowed to change its name and was incorporated into the now single funding stream for universities (administered under a new arrangement by what became HEFCE). The massive expansion in student numbers seen from the late 1980s was led by the polytechnics as they agreed to increase enrolments at marginal rather than average costs.

In the next decade, FTE students went from roughly 650 000 to over 1 million, while the number of 18 year olds declined markedly. But by this point much of what had rendered those institutions distinct from the pre-1992 universities (those key features outlined just before) was no longer so marked: teaching led, part-time student body, industry focus. And the loss of the latter seems to be a particular cause for lament.

Before we move on to today’s concerns about technical education, it’s worth citing a quote from my former PhD supervisor, Peter Osborne. It’s extracted from a longer interview about the closure of Philosophy at Middlesex University in 2010.

In the first place, the abolition of the binary divide was the occasion for a competitive expansion in student numbers. This was the mechanism whereby the lower cost base of the ex-polytechnics could be used to discipline the older universities. It expressed the political contradiction of all market populisms: on the one hand, it had a democratic social content insofar as it expanded the demographic basis of higher education; on the other, it restricted this content to a market form under conditions of a declining unit of resource per student, lowering the quality of education for all students. This led to a right-wing ideological response, blaming the new working class students for ‘dumbing-down’ the system, when it was actually a predictable effect of a deliberate governmental policy, intensified by the inadequacies of the state provision of secondary education (high school), which were highlighted by the process.

… The ‘democratic’ unification of the sector was thus the ideological cover and economic mechanism for a far more hierarchical restructuring of the system. The polytechnics offered vocational studies, but some of them – like Middlesex – also developed innovative arts and humanities programs. It was mainly in polytechnics that new theoretical paradigms in the humanities – like Cultural Studies, for example – developed in the UK during the 1980s. This creative side of the new universities is being comprehensively destroyed by this process. … In the 1980s, Middlesex Polytechnic had a Philosophy Department with over 20 academic staff, teaching a wide range of types of philosophy to all first-year students in humanities and social sciences, as part of a broad-based foundation year.

Part Two


[1] ‘Polytechnic’ is still a protected title – you must apply to Companies House for permission to use it in the title of any new company.

[2] Robbins suggested that higher education had four aims: (i) instruction in skills; (ii) promoting the ‘general powers of the mind’; (iii) the advancement of learning; and (iv) ‘the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. Perhaps only (iii) could be seen as academic, rather than liberal, and in the round what’s set out here certainly isn’t the fashionable, but unproductive, appeal to learning “for its own sake”, or the “uselessness” of academic study.


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