BIRTH OF THE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY: The impact of the First World War on British higher education

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30 Mar 2016

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A meeting of senior government ministers and representatives of all British and Irish universities in November 1918 confirmed a new vision for higher education: the public university was born, increasingly dependent on public funding and focused on meeting public requirements for a skilled workforce and research of value to the economy and wider society.

That is the central finding of research by Professor John Taylor, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge. Based on detailed analysis of government papers and the archives of many British universities, his study traces the changes in funding arrangements for higher education and changing attitudes towards higher education in the course of the First World War.

The First World War had a profound effect on British society; higher education was no exception. Before the war, universities were essentially private institutions. Limited public funding from the Treasury had been made available to some institutions since 1889 and certain monies were made available by certain ministries for specific purposes, such as teacher training and agriculture.

In the main, however, universities were dependent on fee income and philanthropy (donations, subscriptions and endowments). Even those small funds allocated through the Treasury were intended primarily to stimulate local, private support. Government did not recognise a key responsibility to fund higher education, and universities did not look to government for core funding.

Before the war, some politicians began to advocate increased public investment in higher education, stimulated by fears that Britain was falling behind international competitors, especially the United States and Germany. But such voices were in a clear minority.

The war brought very significant changes. First, in the early years of the war, student numbers, especially of male students, fell sharply as men either volunteered or were called up to fight. This meant a sharp drop in income and universities faced severe financial difficulties.

In late 1914 and 1915, they were forced to turn to government for help. Part of their case for help centred on the important role being played by the universities in the war effort, especially in providing commissioned officers and in specialised areas of research.

Government itself began to recognise the valuable functions delivered by the universities. While the desirability of increased government funding was still debated – some politicians questioned whether additional funding should be provided in a time of national crisis and some universities feared government intrusion into their affairs – gradually the need to provide further funding for higher education was recognised.

Moreover, as the war continued, both the universities and government began to look ahead to the role of higher education after the war was over. In particular, attitudes began to change about the role of higher education in encouraging economic growth and competitiveness.

Public awareness and interest in higher education grew during the war. The need for universities and industry to work together more closely for national benefit was stressed.

Moreover, there was growing concern to meet increasing demand for places in higher education, both to meet the expectations of those returning from the fighting and to meet growing aspirations for higher education among a wider cross-section of society. At the same time, there was also a new acknowledgement that staff in universities should be better rewarded, in terms of salaries and pensions.

Against this background, attention turned in 1917 and 1918 to meeting the needs of higher education, both for core funding and for capital investment, both buildings and equipment; research needs, often overlooked before the war, were widely emphasised.

Both the universities and government came to realise that such needs could not be met from private sources alone. Universities increasingly looked to government; and government came to accept its new responsibilities. Further, in government, ideas began to develop of a national system of higher education, a concept unthinkable before the war.

These discussions accelerated during 1918, well before the end of hostilities, and reached a climax on 22 November 1918 when a deputation from all British and Irish universities met with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Education.

This meeting confirmed a new vision for higher education; the public university was born, increasingly dependent on public funding and focussed on meeting public requirements for a skilled workforce and for research of value to the economy and society.


Developing the public university: the impact of the First World War

Professor John Taylor

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