The post-1992 universities: interview with author Peter Brady

A new book takes a critical look at the journey undertaken by ‘post-1992’ universities since their change from polytechnic status almost 30 years ago. Steve Wright questions author Peter Brady

Peter Brady’s new book, Internationalisation of Post-1992 UK Universities: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, examines how those former polytechnics granted university status in 1992 have managed the transition to university status. The book takes a critical look at how the ‘post-1992’ universities have established themselves on the UK higher education landscape, in particular with regard to their (sometimes aggressive) policy of internationalisation.

Brady has worked in the international education field for over 25 years, mostly in post-1992 universities. He argues both that the former polytechnics should, post-1992, have aligned themselves more closely with vocational training (in the kinds of sectors in which we’re now often witnessing a skills gap), and that the direction they took instead (trying to emulate their ‘pre-1992’ counterparts, and closing the funding gap by pursuing foreign students) has been something of a mixed success – with some benefits to host universities and towns, but with some problems too.

We asked the author a few key questions around his arguments.

Q. Peter, your book argues that the internationalisation of ‘post-1992 universities’ has had its costs. Have the major losers been:
– UK students, losing out to UK-educated foreign students with dual qualifications?
– The UK skills sector, which faces a shortfall in trained UK nationals?
– Foreign students cajoled into courses that may not have been right for them?

All these negative effects have occurred, because the main driver towards international recruitment has been commercial. This has come directly from the government, which has not developed an internationalisation strategy. Instead, they have used international student fees to fill funding gaps.

The result has been that universities have used EU students to fill quotas in areas such as engineering. Foreign students have been treated as cash cows rather than young people setting out in the first stages of their careers – and, simultaneously, not enough resources and thought has been put into ensuring that all UK students gain international experience.

I would not necessarily say that there has been an unethical dimension. It is more that there was never a discussion about ethics – Peter Brady

Q. Has there been a slightly unethical dimension to the way that the former polytechnics, in particular, have chased international students?

I would not necessarily say that there has been an unethical dimension. It is more that there was never a discussion about ethics.

For instance, when one former polytechnic opened a New York campus, left-wing politicians flew across to the expensive launch party where they quaffed haggis, bonbons and whisky; and the press lauded it as another success story for UK higher education.

No one asked why they were doing it and what good it did for home students – or even whether New York needed another university. Only when it became an unmitigated financial disaster were questions asked.

Likewise, the US has seen some heated debate on the ethics of using commercial agents to sell universities – but that debate never happened in the UK.

Q. You clearly feel that university vice-chancellors (and, sometimes, other senior staff) have too much power and too little accountability. Are there practical ways in which you can change this?

To address this, one must look back to the moment when polytechnics became universities. At the time, it was expected that their management would be very different to what transpired. As I detail in the book, the Department for Education proposed a senate-type system where academics made the academic decisions for the new university in a collegiate way. This was to be managed by directors, with the university principal as chair. The board of governors was to have a large representation from the academic staff.

However, the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics (CDP) argued for a system where they had more power and the board was a commercial one, with very few academic staff representatives. They won this argument, allowing them to develop a managerial, commercial style and to dominate the boards.

It’s no surprise that the principal who argued the strongest for this system was the highest-paid principal of any UK university when he retired a few years later. Making the board representative and accountable to all stakeholders is essential to changing this culture.

Q. What should have been done differently in the aftermath of the polytechnics attaining their university status?

The CDP promised that, on attaining university status, they would maintain their distinctive roles – for example, at the time they had more part-time students, ran sandwich programmes, and their teaching staff had industrial experience.

However, they soon decided that the only way to get a fair share of funding was to ditch their distinctiveness and become like their pre-1992 colleagues. If research funding had been distributed differently – and used more for applied research – and if the pre-’92 universities had agreed to less money in order to subsidise the new universities, things might have been different. The government of the time needed to fund the sector better, or at least direct more of the existing funding towards the ex-polytechnics.

Bournemouth University – formerly known as Bournemouth Polytechnic and, before that, the Dorset Institute of Higher Education

Q. You note that “now, any attempt to discuss post-1992 universities as a separate entity is seen as subversive and backwards”. Do you think we should think more in these terms?

It is not so much that we should treat the post-1992 universities separately: rather, we should be comfortable enough to have the debate about whether they should have a different role in our system. The Prime Minister’s Initiative for International Education (PMI), introduced under Tony Blair, developed a brand that lumped all universities together as a single ‘world-class system’, so it wasn’t in their interest to admit that some UK universities were definitely not world-class – and why should they be?

At the same time, the former polys felt that, to get a fair share of funding, they needed to become the same as the existing universities. So, the post-1992 universities lost their distinctive mission, but still didn’t gain extra funding. It is no surprise that you’ll find only post-1992 universities in the bottom third or half of all the major league tables. What is a surprise is that the vice-chancellors of those universities are still competing for Research Excellence Frameworks (REF) and trying to compete on a shoestring, whilst refusing to acknowledge that there may be a place for a different type of university.

Q. You’d like to see funding and staffing for the training of vocational qualifications such as nursing, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science transferred to the post-1992 universities. How feasible is this?

There has been a small move towards this in England, where five new medical schools have been created in, or in association with, post-1992 universities. The notion of vocational qualifications centres, in many people’s minds, around trades – building, plumbing, etc. However, there are no more vocational qualifications than those undertaken by doctors, dentists and lawyers – these professions also attract the brightest students and best funding. If these were transferred to the newer, the status and funding of both vocational degrees and those universities would change.


Internationalisation of Post-1992 UK Universities: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Peter Brady is published by Anthem Press. For more information, visit: www.anthempress.com

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