Universities are going through a period of unprecedented change. In the UK the 2016 Higher Education White paper proposes changes that, according to Mike Boxall, will redraw the ‘fundamental relationships that have defined higher education in the UK for 100 years.’
This transformation is a transnational phenomenon and an inherently political one. It is, however, not the first time that this sort of overarching change has shaken the world of higher education. Indeed, the arrangements which dominated the twentieth century and which are now under threat, were themselves the product of the global crisis that was the Great War.
During the First World War, universities in belligerent countries were faced with a series of interconnecting challenges that cumulatively constituted a crisis.
A role for the state
In 1914, there was no coherent national university ‘system’; different types of universities funded themselves in contrasting ways. In addition to student fees, the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge had endowments and landholdings to fall back upon, whereas the more recently founded civic universities were in more regular receipt of state funds. The war would change this; the establishment of the University Grants Committee (UGC) in 1919 saw the emergence of a national system of state funding of higher education for the first time.
Enter the experts
The acknowledgement that the state had a role in funding higher education in an ongoing basis was linked to a second wartime development: the mobilization of knowledge. The Great War far exceeded the scope of any previous conflict and necessitated the mobilization of the totality of a nation’s resources. Battlefront stalemate meant that governments and armies increasingly looked to university scientists to provide novel solutions to modern warfare. The mass mobilization of resources on the home front required legions of economists, sociologists, historians, and other academics to manage a rapidly growing bureaucracy. Moreover, the necessity of keeping domestic and international audiences appraised and supportive of the issues of the war meant that scholars were mobilized to write propaganda.
By the time of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, nations brought teams of academic experts to advise on the drafting of the myriad agreements. While individual scholars had been mobilized in the service of the state before 1914, the Great War witnessed a systematic appropriation of national intellectual capital and a recognition of the integral value of research to the nation.
The importance of research
The mobilization of intellect was not a neat process. On the one hand, scholars sometimes felt uneasy at putting their expertise at the service of the government. In the case of the natural sciences, academics reported great frustrations with the widespread misunderstanding of scientific principles by government officials. The idea that research was a resource that would benefit the state in peacetime as well as war was enshrined in the 1918 ‘Haldane Principle’. This acknowledged the new relationship between university and state and the right of the latter to fund the former without impinging on scholarly freedom when undertaking research.
The Great War also saw the establishment of the PhD degree at British universities. It was the result of transnational political imperatives with a contemporary resonance, namely, the desire of British universities to attract more foreign students. In so doing, they sought to heighten their international prestige while adding to institutional incomes. The hiatus of the First World War presented an opportunity for universities across the world to jostle for position, seeking to acquire greater global recognition – an idea with strong contemporary resonances.
Defining the terms of engagement
The First World War was a crisis for British society that, in turn, transformed British universities and their relationship to the state, introduced research and expanded the sciences. It was not, however, a revolution. University education remained the preserve of a middle and upper class minority. A mass education system really emerged in the aftermath of the 1963 Robbins Report. But the crisis of the Great War, with its national and international dimensions, defined the terms of engagement between universities, the public and the state, that has dominated the twentieth century.
Tomás Irish is the author of