The Haldane principle: remembering Fisher and getting that definition right

Opinion piece by G. R. Evans

It is very welcome news that the Government has decided to include a definition of the Haldane Principle on the face of the Bill. Jo Johnson made a special point of this in his speech to Universities UK on 24 February.  An accompanying document was published jointly by both the Departments of State that will in future be responsible for higher education. It proudly states that:

the amendment that we have tabled will, for the first time in history, enshrine the Haldane Principle in law.

This document did not, however, give more details. The actual Amendment of Clause 99 proposing and containing the definition is to be found in yet another document:

Page 64, line 10, at end insert -

The ‘Haldane principle’ is the principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals (such as a peer review process).”

Note that this definition does not stipulate an exercise of academic judgement, merely an ‘evaluation’ including ‘likely impact’ of research to be funded. Furthermore, the definition does not mention that infrastucture funding will come from Research England. Rather, an earlier statement merely stipulates the Councils (a sub-set of UKRI) will be responsible for the disbursement of project funding:

Page 64, line 7, at end insert -

“the Haldane principle, where the grant or direction mentioned in subsection (1) is in respect of functions exercisable by one or more of the Councils mentioned in section 91(1) pursuant to arrangements under that section,”

This took me back to the question what Haldane actually called for and the context in which he did so. His thoughts on higher education matters are chiefly to be found in some collected writings put together in a period when he was actively involved in fostering the development of the new ‘redbrick’ universities. He developed a special enthusiasm for technical education but essentially he was interested in the work of a university as a whole, not merely its research.

He recognised that if higher education was going to expand successfully something would have to be done about the funding that would be needed:

‘the truth is that work of this kind must be more largely assisted and fostered by the State than is the tradition of today if it is to succeed’

(Education and Empire: Addresses on certain topics of the day (London, 1902), p.38).

The new universities began to accept state funding but it was not at first expected that Oxford or Cambridge would need to apply. The First World War upset many expectations.

A decisive correspondence followed between November 1918 and May 1919, between the then President of the Board of Education, H. A. L. Fisher, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. This was published in full in May in the Oxford University Gazette, under the heading Applications for Government Grants (Oxford University Gazette, 49 (1918-9), p.471-8).

A deputation from the universities ‘asking for larger subsidies from the State’ met Fisher on 23 November. Oxford and Cambridge consulted one another and agreed that it would be wise to join in, but without committing themselves. Oxford was understandably nervous about accepting state funding because of the likelihood that it would bring State control.

But the Oxford scientists, scenting money, put in their own bids for specific sums for particular purposes. The heads of departments of the University Museum wrote on 3 March, 1919 with a list of such ‘needs’, identifying sums for capital outlay and salaries and pensions for Heads of Department and scholarships for what would now be called STEM subjects.

It was in this context that Fisher seems to have made his far-reaching policy decision and stated the ‘Fisher Principle’, that the state would not interfere in the allocation of funds within universities. It would not decide directly whether to fund, say, science at Oxford, or History at Manchester. It would give funding in the form of ‘Block Grants’ and allow the universities themselves to decide how to use the money.

He wrote to the Oxford Vice-Chancellor on 16 April:

‘Henceforth…each University which receives aid from the State will receive it in the form of a single inclusive grant, for the expenditure of which the University, as distinguished from any particular Department, will be responsible. Both the Government and, I think, the great majority of the Universities are convinced that such an arrangement is favourable not only to the preservation of University autonomy but also to the efficient administration of the University funds.’

The University’s Council (then the Hebdomadal Council, meeting weekly in term-time) requested an interview with Fisher and on May 15 a deputation of five, led by the Vice-Chancellor, had a meeting with him. The Memorandum of the Interview ‘kindly furnished by Mr. Fisher’s Secretary’ is also published in the Gazette. It repeated the policy principle arrived at in November, that ‘the English Universities in receipt of State-aid favoured …a general Block Grant’. It was explained that a Standing Committee was in process of ‘formation’ and that ‘henceforward, practically all the money for University Education would be borne on the Treasury Vote and would be allocated in annual Block Grants’ as the Standing Committee recommended.

This Standing Committee developed into the University Grants Committee, which was replaced a quarter of a century ago by first one then four Funding Councils. One of those, HEFCE, is now to be replaced as distributor of the remnant of that Block Grant mainly by Research England within UKRI, with only a vestige of the element previously used to fund teaching still remaining.

So there seem to be features of the Government Amendment to Clause 99 which would bear further thought if a definition of the ‘Haldane Principle’ is to enter statute.

The Haldane Principle arguably needs to be understood as it was developed in the ‘Fisher Principle’ and has been maintained for a century since. That placed a ‘buffer’ body between State and university and protected the freedom of the university to choose how to use its block grant on academic not political principles. That is not quite the thrust of the definition as it stands at present.

Nor did the ‘Fisher-Haldane Principle’ apply to the buffer body itself. The buffer stood between academic freedom and state control. It was not itself subject to that principle. It merely ensured that it was respected.

It is to be hoped that the legal draftsmen working on the Bill will try again. The version in the current Amendment, if it passes into law, will fail to protect the autonomy of the providers receiving funding from UKRI. Nor will it require funding decisions to be taken by academics or by autonomous institutions. The ‘peer review process’ is given as a mere example. There seems nothing to prevent a Minister or Secretary of State conducting ‘an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals’. Haldane and Fisher could both be turning in their graves.




Uses and Abuses of Economics in the Debate on Universities

Report on CDBU Annual Lecture 2017

by Dorothy Bishop

Last night, Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, delivered a splendid lecture with the title “Uses and Abuses of Economics in the Debate on Universities”. It is not possible to do this justice in a brief report, but I aim here to give a synopsis of the main arguments, which are highly relevant to our concerns over the Higher Education and Research Bill, currently under discussion in the House of Lords.

Wolf drew a distinction between three aspects of economics relevant to higher education:

  • The ends to be served by higher education
  • The means used to serve these ends
  • The resources that the government should invest in higher education

The principal point he made about the ends concerned the government’s conceptualisation of what higher education is for. A stated goal of the Higher Education and Research Bill is to achieve a successful ‘knowledge-driven economy’. This, said Wolf, is entirely reasonable, insofar as we need highly-skilled citizens to maintain our prosperity. The problem, however, is that the government’s plans appear to see this as the predominant goal of Higher Education. A point that was clearly understood by the CDBU members in the audience, but by few in government, was that higher education also serves the goal of creating enlightened citizens, capable of rational argument and evaluation of evidence, who will influence society not only in the UK but in the wider world. Yes, government as a funder has a right to ensure its money is properly spent, but our universities are threatened if this is taken to mean that the sole criterion for success is an economic one.

The means proposed to achieve the government’s ends is market competition. Wolf noted that the word ‘competition’ occurred in the White Paper introducing the Bill fifty times. Yet he pointed out that the notion of a market for higher education was deeply flawed on several counts: one simply cannot treat universities like businesses selling goods, because what they provide cannot be evaluated in advance. Failure of universities has dire consequences for students, for example, as would encouraging for-profit providers to enter the sector without adequate scrutiny or a substantial track record. Perhaps even more important, a profit-seeking institution cannot be a university in the full meaning of the term: if incentives for providers are solely financial, then we risk losing the very quality that makes our universities so well-respected internationally: the focus on innovative research and intellectual inquiry for its own sake.

Of course, the government is aware of some of these difficulties, but their attempt to deal with them, by creating the Office for Students, creates more problems than it solves. Wolf expressed concern about the sweeping powers proposed for the OfS, in what he termed ‘a fully-fledged government takeover of the UK’s university sector’. He added that ‘Anybody who thinks this will end with more diverse, more innovative, more courageous and more independent institutions is surely a fool.’

Wolf then turned to consider the financial resources available for Higher Education, noting that although the UK spends a slightly higher proportion of GDP on tertiary education than other European countries, a relatively high proportion of this now comes from private sources.  However, UK universities have been remarkably successful producers of high-quality research, and Wolf linked this to the way in which government has funded research. Without this public funding, we would not be able to continue as a global superpower in higher education. Wolf did not discuss student loans in any detail, but he agreed with the view that it was more equitable to rely partly on loans than entirely on tax-funding, although it is certain that a part of this debt, possibly a substantial part, will ultimately be picked up by the taxpayer because not all fees will be repaid.

Given his criticisms of the Higher Education and Research Bill, it is interesting to consider what alternative approach Wolf would like to adopt. Here, he argued, the problem was that the government’s proposals were not radical enough. They persist with the traditional approach of equating higher education with the university sector and ignoring the rest of tertiary education. What about the high proportion of the population for whom university is not a desirable goal? They have long been neglected, both in terms of funding and in terms of post-school educational options. Wolf argued that we should extend the loans system, so that people could access different types of education throughout adult life, and that a much wider range of tertiary education options should be made available.

Wolf started his lecture with a quote from H. L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. He made a compelling case that the funding and organisation of our system of higher education system is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. By seeking to frame the issue in terms of simple-minded market economics, the government had got it badly wrong. They need, he concluded, to think again.






The Higher Education and Research Bill: The need to stop and think

Guest post by G.R. Evans

The Higher Education and Research Bill is now on its way to the Committee stage. The Public Bills Committee has requested submissions, which should be emailed to

The Bill is not a speedy read. In an earlier blogpost I sketched its proposed changes to the English higher education system. This set of new short blogposts may, I hope, be useful to those in search of a convenient aid to picking up points which are now emerging more clearly, and on some of which concerns have already been raised in both Houses of Parliament. Where MPs or peers are quoted or mentioned links are provided to their contact details.

Where we are

The Bill was drafted against the clock, in order to be ready to publish on 19 May 2016. Publication came immediately after the Queen’s Speech on 18 May, and only three days after the publication of the White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy.

Weeks of political campaigning before the Referendum on 23 June followed, during which normal political business was largely set aside. Several weeks came after that during which a new Government was formed, Departments of State reorganised and new Ministers appointed or existing ones moved.

There was extensive early press coverage of concerns about the implications of the Brexit vote for higher education, especially the future of research funding arrangements, the freedom of European academics to work in the UK and of UK academics to work in Europe, and student numbers from the EU. The House of Lords discussed these concerns on 20 July, with half a dozen members giving detailed examples of problems already arising and seeking reassurances. There were requests for a rethink about the Bill’s planned changes. Nevertheless, just before the summer recess began, a Second Reading of the Bill was timetabled on 19 July.

An Act of Parliament normally goes through a series of stages, handily set out for the Higher Education and Research Bill on the website. A Green Paper is not a requirement. A Green Paper was published in November 2015 and a consultation followed. A summary of responses was published with the White Paper on May 16, but the concerns expressed did not appear to be reflected in its content. A White Paper followed by consultation is usual. A White Paper not followed by consultation is very unusual, as is the publication of a Bill quite so hot on the heels of a White Paper.

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