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Crisis and change for higher education: some reflections from history and the First World War

  • 8 April 2020
  • By John Taylor

This blog has been contributed by Professor John Taylor, Visiting Professor at the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. He is the author of The Impact of the First World War on British Universities: Emerging from the Shadows (2018). His earlier HEPI blog on the First World War and higher education from November 2018 can still be accessed here.

The impact of the Coronavirus crisis is obvious for everyone, with deep consequences for all aspects of society. A crisis usually leads to long-term changes, in attitudes, organisation, policies and practice. Higher education is no exception.

Looking to the future, we must expect change; some changes may be planned, others will occur as the result of uncoordinated individual or localised actions. The present crisis is unprecedented, but it is interesting to consider the consequences of another massive crisis that faced higher education a little over a century ago, the First World War of 1914-18. Clearly, the detail and nature of the crisis posed by the Great War were vastly different from Covid-19.

As far as higher education is concerned, the context, scale and complexity of activity today are hugely different from that existing in 1914. However, I would still suggest that the study of history can help us to reflect on present issues and challenges.

The outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 came as a huge shock to the universities. No university or college was prepared for the impact of war. The same can be said for 2020. This is not meant in any way as a criticism; no institution could possibly have foreseen such events or been able to put aside resources, both human and financial, to provide necessary resilience. However, it did place a particular focus on institutional leadership and on the need for creative university management; many old norms and expectations had to be dispensed with.

In 1914, the first, immediate impact was felt on student numbers. Existing male students volunteered to fight in large numbers; similarly, new male students due to enter their courses in September/October 1914 sought to defer their courses. In 1915, the position worsened further, as military recruitment efforts were stepped up, eventually leading to conscription. The result was a massive drop in overall student numbers.

In the University of Leeds, for example, between 1913-14 and 1916-17, student numbers fell by 35%; similar reductions were experienced elsewhere. Subjects like Engineering, which had been mainly dominated by male students, suffered in particular. However, the most significant impact was financial. In 1914, universities were, in essence, private institutions drawing most of their funding from fees and philanthropy. The reduction in student numbers therefore caused widespread alarm. To take just one example, comparing fee income in 1914-15, the first year of the War, with 1913-14, fee income at the University of Liverpool fell by 34%.

In 2020, our universities are also facing a huge reduction in recruitment with dire consequences for fee income. International student numbers will certainly fall in the immediate future, and, possibly, may never recover to previous levels, with consequences for overall institutional funding and especially for those departments which have become heavily dependent on international student recruitment.

So, what was the response of universities in the First World War?

First, all institutions sought to reassure their staff and students that their positions would be safeguarded. Today, I am sure that all institutions are similarly concerned with the position of their staff and students. Second, universities began to look for savings in any ways they could. New building projects were postponed or cancelled, maintenance was curtailed and departmental grants were cut. Again, universities today are responding in the same way. However, by 1915, the crisis had deepened, and it was becoming clear that further action was needed. Many of the ‘new’ universities established in the years preceding the War (such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Bristol) had not yet established significant financial reserves. Fee income had dropped and fears grew of possible institutional closures. The response was highly significant, with important long-term consequences, and may help us to reflect on the position facing higher education institutions today. Universities, which had until that time been rather ‘local’, inward-looking institutions, began to work together, to share skills and experiences.

The Scottish universities, the Northern universities and the London colleges each began to lobby Government for direct financial assistance. This approach was based on arguments showing the contribution being made by institutions to the War effort and their potential contribution to the post-War recovery. The response of Government was, initially, cautious, reflecting a strong belief that all sections of society needed to make sacrifices. However, by the end of 1915, a scheme was approved providing cash payments to universities in order to compensate them for financial losses in 1914-15 compared with 1913-14.

These grants were highly significant in the history of higher education funding in Britain. The grants were a temporary measure that helped universities to stabilise their finances. Moreover, the funding helped to pave the way for the establishment of the University Grants Committee (UGC) in 1919. Universities had been reluctant to approach Government fearing a loss of their autonomy, but, in reality, they had little choice but to seek help. Equally, there was growing recognition in Government that universities had a crucial role to play, both in the War effort, including both training and research, and in the anticipated future national recovery. In practice, a new relationship between Government and higher education developed out of the crisis of War, a new relationship based on mutual dependence and mutual recognition of each other’s important contribution.

These developments continued towards the end of the War. In 1917, a leading civil servant, Alan Kidd, referred to the emergence of a ‘national scheme’ for higher education, a concept that would have been unimaginable before the War. Further, he outlined proposals for the establishment of annual grants from Government to support core expenditure within universities and for the provision of Government grants for new buildings and special facilities. In practice, the Government, faced with the demands of a national crisis, had begun to recognise that universities had a crucial role to play within the economy and society, but, also, that, if that role was to be successfully fulfilled, it was not possible to rely upon private sources of funding. This process culminated in an important meeting on November 1918 when university leaders met with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. At the end of that meeting, the President of the Board of Education, Herbert Fisher, explained that he was convinced ‘of the necessity of a very much more liberal assistance from the state to the higher learning in the country’.

Is this relevant in today’s crisis?

I would argue that many of the same arguments can be applied. Universities have a crucial role to play in responding to the Coronavirus crisis and in securing a successful economic and social recovery in the future. Government cannot simply treat institutions as businesses subject to the ebb and flow of market forces. We need innovation and partnership, not unnecessary competition. Equally, universities need to accept their wider public responsibilities. I would suggest that, as was the case in the First World War, there is a strong case for direct grants to assist individual institutions and for further support to assist with future reconstruction. Also, hopefully, a new spirit of cooperation might develop, both between institutions and between institutions and Government.

What other reflections might be made based on the experiences of the First World War? The War prompted a vigorous national effort, not unlike the response to Covid-19. Universities played a crucial role in this response. Academic staff took on key roles within the War effort; students volunteered in large numbers to work in hospitals, in caring for the wounded or bereaved, and in food production, especially at harvest time. Universities often helped to coordinate such work. Of particular significance, and highly relevant to the present crisis, was how university facilities were marshalled to meet problems raised by the War. Thus, university departments undertook widespread health testing to help prevent the spread of disease; and university workshops were used to manufacture munitions and supplies, including medical equipment. In many cases, universities worked actively with national and local public authorities, and with private businesses. The demands imposed by the War broke down many preconceptions and helped to forge new working relationships. Coronavirus will require a similar response.

In the event, during the First World War there were no institutional closures and remarkably few departments ceased their teaching; indeed, many new departments were formed in important areas for the War effort, such as the Modern Languages, Engineering and some social sciences, especially in the caring professions. The War prompted a series of practical and imaginative actions, including the employment of more women, part-time and retired staff, the introduction of new course regulations and the development of new degree formats, such as sandwich courses. A new interest in postgraduate study was also observed. Many of these changes had important long-term consequences. Today, we are witnessing changes of, potentially, even greater significance as universities seek to maintain their teaching using new technologies, especially online and remote delivery. The decline of the ‘traditional’ university, dominated by full-time students and face-to-face teaching, has often been predicted, but, whilst it has been weakened, it has survived as the dominant model.

Perhaps, now, prompted by the need to deliver programmes in a different way, the whole nature of a university might change; it will not be possible to turn the clock backwards. What is clear is that the First World War stimulated, out of urgent necessity, new approaches to teaching and the breakdown of previous norms. Coronavirus, also out of necessity, has already prompted an innovative reaction from institutions and their staff which is likely to reshape teaching practice for years to come.

The First World War also had an important impact on research activity. Before 1914, research had been relatively unimportant in British universities. There were, of course, individual researchers of huge repute, but research was rarely seen as an institutional priority. The War brought about a recognition that British research had fallen behind international competitors, such as Germany and the United States, with adverse consequences for economic competitiveness. The War itself created an immediate interest in research, for military applications, but also in medicine and health; it is important also to note the increasing research into the impact of the War on society.

Within universities, strategies for encouraging research began to emerge, together with new procedures for intellectual property. Important features of the new commitment to research were the active involvement of Government as a sponsor and coordinator – the new Committee for Scientific and Industrial Research was established in 1915 – and the active partnership of university departments with manufacturing industry. As in other activities, the urgency of War served to break down barriers, often unseen but nonetheless real, to effective working collaboration.

The fight against Coronavirus poses a similar challenge. British universities have a long record of working with industrial partners, but the present crisis will require new contacts to be forged and new forms of administration to be applied; structural flexibility and imagination will be needed, as well as scientific rigour, within and across institutions and their partners.

Underpinning the response of universities in the First World War, of course, was the work of individual members of staff. Before the start of the War, there had been growing concern about levels of pay and terms of employment, including arrangements for pensions. Some things never change! These concerns were largely put aside during the early years of the War, but began to surface again as the end of the War neared. Before the War, the Government had not interfered in the employment of staff in universities either as a regulator or as a funding body. However, the contribution of staff to the War effort was increasingly acknowledged and in early 1919, announcing additional funding for universities, Herbert Fisher indicated that priority should be given to increased salaries and improved superannuation. It is interesting to think about whether there will be a similar response to the Coronavirus crisis.

More generally, the First World War brought about an increased recognition within society of the work of universities. Government acknowledged the role of higher education, in teaching, research and service, in a way that had never been apparent before. Members of the public, the vast majority of whom had no previous awareness of higher education, now came into contact with university staff and students, raising interest and aspirations. The War ended on an optimistic note for higher education, with anticipated expansion and new forms of funding. Many of these hopes were shattered by the economic problems of the inter-War years, but, nonetheless, the changes brought about by the War were profound and long-lasting, helping to shape British higher education through the twentieth century.

The Coronavirus will also have a similarly significant long-term impact on British higher education and its position within the world. The precise nature of those changes remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that, just as in 1914, the higher education institutions, their staff and students, have a leading role to play in responding to the present crisis, in research, in supporting the national response and in driving the recovery. That role needs to be recognised and supported.

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