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How higher education changed during the Queen’s reign – and why we should now consider establishing a new university in her name

  • 14 September 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

HEPI has generally paused its output during the period of official mourning for Her Majesty the Queen, but we are running this one piece by HEPI Director Nick Hillman that looks partly at the changes to higher education during her long reign between 1952 and 2022. It is based on a speech delivered this week to a civic organisation in Buckinghamshire.


It is right and necessary for me to begin with last week’s awful news about Her Majesty the Queen. As for many people my age, one of my earliest memories is the Silver Jubilee of 1977, when I was just five. Little did we realise at the time that this was merely an early staging post on the way to this year’s Platinum Jubilee and the Queen’s successful 70 plus years on the throne.

I have been asked to speak about higher education, given my day job is running the Oxford-based Higher Education Policy Institute. So let me start by noting the Queen’s contribution to universities, of which she was a huge supporter both here in the UK and throughout the Commonwealth.

She was – for example – Patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities for 33 years and she established the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes, which remain the highest Honour that a UK further or higher education institution can achieve.

1952 to 2022

I have here the Year Book of Education for 1952, the year the Queen came to the throne. It seems an extraordinary document today because it reveals how much has changed since then.

The tome reminds us, for example, that there were just 85,000 full-time students in the UK at the start of the 1950s – compared to 2.2 million today, over 25 times as many. In fact, the number of students at UCL and the University of Manchester today is roughly the same as the total number of students in 1952. 

It is a similar story when it comes to university staff: whereas there were 8,000 full-time academic staff 70-odd years ago, today the number is nearly 150,000. Our biggest regular university, UCL, has over 6,000 full-time academic staff, which is not too far off what the whole sector had in 1952. In short, the university sector doubled every 15 years or so during the Queen’s reign, on average.

And the same growth is evident when it comes to regulation: the University Grants Committee, which used to sit between the Government and universities, had 16 members of staff in the early 1950s; today England’s Office for Students, which is just one of many bodies that now regulates universities across the different parts of the UK, alone has 377 staff.

Back in 1952, there were just 18 universities – it literally only takes a few seconds to name them all:

  • Oxford
  • Cambridge
  • St Andrews
  • Glasgow
  • Aberdeen
  • Edinburgh
  • Durham
  • London
  • Wales
  • Birmingham
  • Manchester
  • Liverpool
  • Leeds
  • Sheffield
  • Queen’s University Belfast
  • Bristol
  • Reading and
  • Nottingham.

Two months after becoming Queen, Elizabeth II created one more university in Southampton. But today, there are 145 universities in the UK, so eight times as many as in 1952 as well as hundreds of other institutions, such as further education colleges, that deliver higher education.

Fascinatingly, some things have not changed since 1952. The 1952 Year Book of Education reveals, for example, tensions over the level of Government involvement in the running of universities, which was also a theme at last week’s Universities UK Annual Conference at the University of Leicester. The Year Book raises the importance of assessing students’ mental health and questions whether international students are always getting all the benefits they should. In addition it calls for universities to do more with schools and technical colleges, which has been a preoccupation of recent governments. Back in 1952, the new concept of ‘Freshers’ Conferences’ had just taken off, which is of note in this week of all weeks as many universities are just now kicking off the new academic year with their ‘freshers’ week’ or ‘welcome week’.

The 1952 Year Book also reveals worries about whether students were ‘securing the right job at the end of the course’, which has echoes in today’s conversations about graduate outcomes, and of a shortage of places in halls of residence, which is a current concern that featured in last weekend’s Observer and Monday’s You and Yours on Radio 4.

Above all, the 1952 Year Book encapsulates the creative tension faced by autonomous universities that benefit from taxpayers’ largesse when it notes:

The nation is financing them to supply trained professionals and trained research workers in a wider and wider scatter of specialisms as she sees herself in need of them.

But she is also continuing to give them freedom, indeed to pay them to have it, not without hope that they will be a source of culture to her, will raise her own standard or response, [and] will help to show her what living in a civilised society means.

That remains a good summary of the relationship between government and independent educational institutions. It all serves as a reminder that history is the study of what doesn’t change as well as of what does change.

It also proves beyond all doubt that there is no such thing as a new educational policy question: the evidence improves and the answers change but the questions never do.

Explaining the changes

In the main though, our higher education sector is clearly very different today, on the accession of King Charles III – who incidentally is the first monarch to be a graduate – as it was on the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. In the next part of my speech, I want to try and explain the underlying causes of that change before looking at what they might mean for the future.

First, we have more students, staff and universities because a much higher proportion of our young people emerge from the compulsory stage of education at school or college with the qualifications, aptitude and desire to enrol in higher education. Who can blame them, given that the proven benefits of higher education include more satisfaction with life, higher earnings and living longer? You are also less likely to commit crime – or at least be caught committing a crime.

Higher education acts as a sort of insurance policy (though not a guarantee) against adversity, such as unemployment, so demand tends to go up in crises, like the COVID crisis we have recently lived through. There is even a serious piece of social science research called the Millennium Cohort Study which shows 97% of mothers of young children want their kids to go to university. They won’t all go of course, nor should they, but that 97% number reveals something very profound about the levels of aspiration in our society.

A second key reason behind the changes that have occurred since 1952 is that demand from employers for graduates has grown fast as well. Lots of roles that you did not need a degree to do in the past are now reserved for graduates.

Nursing is a good example. Many people question whether this should be so. I am not sure it is for me to say who the NHS should recruit, but it seems to me they are simply following the evidence. There are large global studies which prove beyond all doubt that hospitals with a larger proportion of graduate nurses are safer environments for patients than those without.

More broadly, recent UK growth in the economy is built on the increase in higher-level skills. One new report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change claims: ‘the expansion of HE [higher education] over the past generation has become a progressively more important source of prosperity and the mainstay of economic growth since the global financial crisis.’ 

Thirdly, universities are crucial for civic regeneration and local pride. Pretty much every significant town or city without a university of its own wants one. It is sometimes said the difference between a city and a great city is the presence of a university, which feels true: perhaps Cambridge would be a small Fenland town without the (more than one) university that it hosts.

Future demand

Let me pause here to note one oddity about our own part of the UK. Buckinghamshire is perhaps the single strangest part of the UK when it comes to the provision of higher education. Our two oldest universities are the Open University and the University of Buckingham: the former is a distance learning provider serving students all over the country and world; the second is a small ‘private’ institution. In the south of the county, we also have Buckinghamshire New University, which is based largely in High Wycombe with outposts in Great Missenden and Aylesbury. This is a more regular institution but it has not even reached adulthood yet, only becoming a university in 2007.

So it remains the case that, at the northern end of the county, we have (arguably) the largest settlement in the UK without a regular university in Milton Keynes. Neither the University of Bedfordshire’s Milton Keynes Campus nor the good-but-awfully-named MK:U project – which hasn’t received the public funding that was hoped for – have changed this.

I note in passing that, as a country, we have universities named after King George IV (King’s College London), Queen Victoria (Queen’s University Belfast) and Queen Mary (Queen Mary University of London). We also have a number of Oxbridge colleges named after Royals. How fitting it would be if we were now to found a new university in the late Queen’s memory. I tentatively suggest we might want to investigate the possibility of doing that here in our own county, perhaps in Milton Keynes, which was formally designated as a city earlier this year as part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

If this seems unfair to other parts of the UK, I wonder if we could have a competition, as with city status, to determine where such a new university  (or universities) might go. If this all sounds mischievous or opportunistic, I would merely ask if not now, then when? We cannot sensibly serve the future growing demand for higher education from existing institutions alone.

HEPI has predicted we need 350,000 extra full-time places for home students in England by 2035 as a result of both of changing demographics – that is, an increase in 18 year-olds – and also an increase in the proportion of school-leavers ready, able and keen to attend higher education. Others have used different methodologies to come to a similar conclusion. Meanwhile, UCAS have predicted there will be a total of one million applicants to higher education, from the UK and abroad in 2026, up from 700,000 now.

So the main challenge is whether we prepare for the coming surge or else let it catch us unawares. If we don’t prepare for it, we may end up back where we were when I started working on higher education policy 15 years ago, when supply and demand were not aligned and the BBC were running headlines like: ‘“250,000” to miss university places this year’.

I would advise policymakers to avoid such a scenario in part because they will face an electoral tsunami if they stand in the way of people meeting their aspirations. Young people already struggle to buy homes and to afford our astronomically expensive childcare. Are we really to block their passage to higher education as well?

There will still be some people who disagree with me I am sure, and who think we already send too many people to higher education. But consider this: if you limit places, higher education becomes a zero-sum game in which only my kid can go or your kid can go but not both. 

Currently, far more girls than boys go to higher education. A far higher proportion of Londoners go than non-Londoners. And far more middle-class people go than people from more disadvantaged households. We can only tackle such inequalities by further expansion because, quite frankly, middle-class families in the shires are not going to willingly give up their places to others. Nor should they have to. We do not limit schooling or access to healthcare, so why would we limit access to higher level education? (HEPI’s events at the Labour and Conservative party conferences will consider the issue of access further.)

Despite the controversy they engender, that is the beauty of the high tuition fees we have in England, backed as they are by taxpayer-subsidised income-contingent loans. I helped to introduce these higher fees when working as the Special Adviser to the Minister for Universities and Science in Whitehall and support them mainly because they allowed us to remove the old student numbers cap that blocked people from improving themselves through obtaining a degree.


Let me change tack here for the final part of my speech. When you argue for our higher education sector to get even bigger, people often assume that means you are defending the existing sector in all respects. It is not so. I am a fan of all our universities because I have visited the vast majority of them and have not yet been to a bad one. But every university has some provision that is excellent and some provision that is not yet so good.

So unlike some people who work in universities, I think the Westminster Government and the main regulator of universities in England, the Office for Students, are right to shine a spotlight on the quality of different courses – universities do, after all, still receive billions of pounds of public money. If a course is not delivering for its students or the needs of employers and the country as a whole, it is reasonable to ask some questions. I am not suggesting the right questions have always been asked by the way – there has, for example, been too much focus on graduate earnings as a guide to the quality of a course.

Beyond course quality, there are many other challenges facing our university sector and the new government. The most important is the cost-of-living crisis, which affects staff and institutions and, especially, students because our university system (unlike those in many other countries) is largely built on the assumption that people will leave home and rent privately, which has lots of advantages but also increases the costs.

Universities are also caught up in the culture wars – one journalist controversially described them as ‘Madrassas of the Left.’ I do not think there is a free speech crisis in our universities but neither do I think there is no problem.

We recently conducted an opinion poll among students on a series of free speech issues and we asked exactly the same questions as we did back in 2016. Our results suggests students have become notably less liberal in the intervening period. Too often, the temptation is to ban rather than to debate. 

I have today reminded you of the benefits of higher education, suggested we might want to mark the late Queen’s unrivalled service to our country by creating one or more new universities and also flagged some of the challenges currently facing our higher education sector. But I want to end – as I always try to do – with some positives, difficult though that feels to do during a period of national mourning.

Despite the challenges facing our universities, it is important to remember that we have far more universities than any other European country in the main global league tables, we have the lowest student drop-out rates in the developed world and we attract more international students than any other country apart from the much larger US, which brings huge soft powereconomic and pedagogical benefits to us here in the UK. There aren’t so many areas of modern life where the UK is undeniably world class, but the provision of higher education remains one.

The photo that accompanies this item on our website, which is of a waxwork of Queen Elizabeth II, is by Mathew Browne and is available on Unsplash.


  1. David Law says:

    Thank you for another excellent piece (especially your conclusions). Your list of 18 universities neglects the University Colleges (Hull, Leicester, Keele). These were also functioning, in many ways, as universities by the time of the coronation.

    1. Nick Hillman says:

      Thank you David. That is a fair point. The Year Book mentioned is especially interesting on North Staffs.

  2. Roger Watson says:

    Nick – thanks for a very positive comment about university education for nurses – the evidence indeed supports it; but the evidence is often ignored – Roger

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