Chapter 2 - The background and context of the Commission’s work

2.1 In the thirty years since the Franks Commission, there have been major changes in higher education within the UK as a whole, and also within Oxford itself. Some of the national changes (such as the increased participation of women in higher education) have been paralleled by developments in Oxford, but others have not. All of them have formed the background to our work. In this chapter we briefly review these developments in order to provide the context for our report.

I: Higher education in the UK since the mid-1960s

General developments

2.2 In the mid-1960s most universities offered residential, full-time degree courses, requiring three or four years' consecutive study. These courses were aimed at academically well qualified recent school leavers: both part-time study and study by mature students were comparatively rare in universities.

2.3 When the Robbins Report[18] was published in 1963 there were 31 universities in the UK, all of which expected their staff to undertake both teaching and research. They received their public funding through the University Grants Committee (UGC) and through public support for student fees. Some higher education was also provided in other institutions, such as colleges of education.

2.4 Since the mid-1960s, there has been substantial growth and diversification in this pattern of higher education in the UK. The first phase of expansion took place in the aftermath of the Robbins Report, which recommended that 'courses of higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so'. [19] As a result, seven new universities were built on greenfield sites during the later 1960s, and eight former Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) were awarded university status. One consequence of these changes was that the more vocationally orientated CATs were grafted onto the university system. The 1960s also saw the establishment of the first polytechnics, which were expected to offer more vocationally orientated courses than most universities, and which were not funded to carry out research.

2.5 A second phase of growth took place during the later 1980s and early 1990s. First the polytechnics, and later the universities, began to expand their intakes rapidly. The number of full-time students in higher education in the UK grew from some 450,000 in 1978-9 to over 1.1 million in 1995-6 (see paragraphs 2.9 to 2.11). The institutional structure and the funding arrangements for the higher education sector were also radically altered by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, through which the government removed many of the distinctions between universities, polytechnics and higher education colleges, and sought to foster further expansion of higher education by encouraging greater competition for funds and students. The Act set up unitary funding arrangements to cover higher education as a whole, and redesignated the polytechnics and certain other higher education institutions as universities. These 'new', post-1992 universities compete on equal terms with the 'pre-1992' universities for public funds both for teaching and for research. The allocations of funding for higher education in England have become the responsibility of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Similar funding councils were established in Scotland and Wales, the latter covering further education as well as higher education; separate arrangements were made for Northern Ireland.

2.6 Since 1993 the government's policy of encouraging growth in undergraduate numbers has been replaced by one of 'consolidation'. This change arose largely because it became clear to the government that the financial commitment to support continued growth from public funds was unacceptable, and also because the rapid rate of growth achieved in the early 1990s meant that the government's target of a one in three participation rate in higher education for 18-19 year olds was achieved earlier than originally expected.

Number of institutions

2.7 There are now 176 higher education institutions in the UK, 115 of which bear the title of university (including the various constituent colleges of the University of London and the University of Wales).[20] Although these institutions all work within a broadly similar higher education funding regime, they have widely varying missions and student profiles, reflecting their different origins and history. For example, in 1995-6 in England, HEFCE funded 72 universities (including eight directly funded schools of the University of London), and 48 colleges of higher education. HEFCE also allocated funds to support higher education provision at 75 colleges of further education (where over 11 per cent of all higher education students are now taught). Some of the institutions funded by HEFCE (including Oxford) offer teaching in a wide range of subjects, but others are more specialised.

2.8 Over the last thirty years Oxford has thus become one of over 100 universities instead of one of 31. Oxford remains a large institution by UK standards (only 11 universities in the UK have more students than Oxford) but, whereas in 1965-6 Oxford educated some five per cent of higher education students, it now educates less than one per cent of them.


2.9 In 1995-6 there were about 1.6 million students undertaking courses of higher education in the UK; 1.1 million of these were studying on full-time or sandwich courses, the remainder on part-time courses.[21] Figure 2.1 summarises the growth which has occurred in full-time students since 1966.

Figure 2.1: Growth in UK full-time students in higher education, 1965-6 to 1995-6

Growth in UK full-time students in higher education, 1965-6 to 1995-6

Source: DfEE, cited in Dearing Report, p. 18

2.10 Nationally, the number of full-time students has grown three-fold. In contrast Oxford's total resident student body[22] has in the same period grown by 70 per cent, from 9,808 in 1965-6 to 15,236 in 1995-6.

2.11 Figure 2.2 illustrates further features of the national student body and compares it with Oxford. It will be seen that Oxford's current student profile differs in several important respects from the national pattern. Oxford has a much higher proportion of graduate students (30 per cent as compared to the national average of 14 per cent). Leaving aside continuing education students, full-time undergraduate and graduate students constitute the overwhelming majority of the total student body at Oxford (there are no part-time undergraduate degrees in Oxford, and part-time graduate students constitute only a very small proportion of the total graduate student body).

Figure 2.2: UK and Oxford HE students: 1995-6

  UK HE Oxford
Total no. of students  1.6m  15,641
 Full-time or sandwich course students     
(as % of total)
 69%  97.5%
 Part-time students
(as % of total)
 21%  2.5%
 Students on first-degree courses
(as % of total)
 86%  70%
 Graduate students
(as % of total)
 14% 30%

Source: HESA and Oxford Student Database

Degree courses

2.12 In higher education as a whole there is now considerably greater diversity in the pattern of courses available than there was at the time of the Robbins Report in 1963. One change in recent years has been the widespread development of modular courses. These enable students to study discrete modules on which they are separately examined, building up credits towards a degree as they progress. Sometimes credits can be built up by a mixture of full-time and part-time study over a number of years, without continuous study, and (especially in cases where teaching is franchised out) without a student necessarily taking all the modules at a single institution. This introduces considerable flexibility into a degree course, but also raises questions about the coherence and identity of the course.

2.13 The Dearing Report has encouraged the trend towards modular courses and credit transfer by proposing a national framework for qualifications which would enable them to be assessed according to common criteria.[23]

2.14 Another development is the reorganisation of the academic year so as to replace the traditional three terms with two or three 'semesters', each usually 15 weeks in length. The aim is to increase the proportion of the year available for formal teaching and to open up the possibility of students taking a course which would normally last for three calendar years over two years or a little more. A three 'semester' system reduces the time available to academic staff for research and scholarship and to students for private study.

2.15 In contrast to these developments elsewhere in the higher education system, each Oxford degree course remains freestanding, taking three or four years to complete, with transfers between courses relatively rare. A greater degree of variety in the initial choice of courses available has been introduced since the mid-1960s through the growth in joint honour schools, whereby students are able to combine the study of two or more different subjects within a single degree course;[24] about 20 per cent of undergraduates now take honour schools involving two or more subjects. However, except in the case of its continuing education programmes, Oxford has not chosen to develop modular courses and credit transfer arrangements; nor has it thought it appropriate to change the existing pattern of a three-term academic year.


2.16 Until the changes introduced by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, all universities were expected to undertake research, and most academic staff within them were assumed to be carrying out both teaching and research. With the expansion in the number of universities since then, and the introduction of unitary funding arrangements for higher education, the position has changed. On the one hand there are now many more institutions competing for research funding: in the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise a total of 210 institutions across the UK submitted researchers for assessment. On the other hand, there has been no increase in the overall level of funding for research in higher education since 1992, and the funding councils have therefore adopted more selective policies in allocating these funds. While many more institutions receive some funding, the bulk of it is increasingly concentrated in a smaller number of universities; and while there are more institutions undertaking research in at least some subject areas, for most this is a minority activity and research funding forms a minority part of their income.

2.17 The position at Oxford is somewhat different, in that research is a major activity for almost all staff who are engaged in teaching, and in addition forms the main occupation for the 2,000 academic-related research staff who either undertake research in their own right or support that of others across the University. Oxford returned more staff as 'research active' in the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise than any other institution in the UK, and a high proportion of its total income is research funding (over 50 per cent of the income of the University (as narrowly defined) in 1995-6 fell into this category). Moreover, unlike many other universities, Oxford has staff conducting research across almost all its academic subject areas. Finally, the volume of research activity as measured by research-related income has been growing rapidly in recent years, with research in the biomedical sciences growing particularly rapidly. Growth in this latter field has a higher impact, in terms of requirements for space, support staff, and equipment costs, than in some other subject areas, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

The funding of higher education

2.18 At present the main sources of funding for both teaching and research come from the public purse, but there is a trend towards diversification of funding sources. While the state is likely to remain a major source of funding, it seems certain that the Dearing Report will lead increasingly to more of the costs of teaching in higher education being borne by those who benefit most directly from it.

2.19 Public funding for teaching comes, at present, mainly from the funding councils (HEFCE in England) in the form of block grants, and from local authorities (who are reimbursed by central government) in the form of direct payment of fees for Home/EU undergraduates. (The research councils and the British Academy also support a proportion of Home/EU graduate students.) The balance between the two streams of funding has changed over time as the government has adjusted them to influence institutional behaviour. Generally, a greater proportion of funding has flowed through student fees when expansion of the system was sought, and a smaller proportion when consolidation was sought. Since Home/EU students have not themselves paid the fees, these changes were undertaken with little public awareness. Students are also at present eligible for maintenance awards, which are means tested according to parental income. In recent years these awards have been reduced and students (or their families) have been required to contribute more to the costs of their own maintenance, often through taking out student loans. The government's outline acceptance of the recommendations in the Dearing Report for income-contingent contributions to tuition fees and living costs, to be paid by students themselves once they have graduated and are in work, is likely to lead to a further increase in the extent to which higher education receives its teaching funding from non-public sources.

2.20 Public funding for research comes to universities in the form of block grants from the funding councils, project and programme grants from the research councils, and contracts from government departments and other public bodies. The balance of funding responsibility between the funding councils and research councils was altered in 1992 from the former to the latter, and corresponding transfers of funds between them were made.[25] In total, the funding councils and the research councils spend over £1,200 million on research in higher education in the UK each year. In addition to their funding from public sources, universities also receive substantial research funding from charities and from industrial and commercial sources: in 1994-5, for example, charities spent some £354 million on research in UK higher education, and industrial organisations spent some £190 million.[26]

Institutional sources of funding

2.21 In 1995-6 a 'typical' UK university received some 44 per cent of its income from a funding council recurrent grant. A further 16 per cent came from publicly funded tuition fees, 5 per cent from research council grants, and 35 per cent from other sources, mainly income from catering and residences.[27] Figure 2.3 illustrates this.

Figure 2.3: UK HE institutions 1995-5: Typical analysis of income

UK HE institutions 1995-5: Typical analysis of income

Source: CIPFA

Figure 2.4: Oxford 1995-6: University and colleges income

Oxford 1995-6: University and colleges income

Source: University Financial Statements and Accounts of the Colleges

Note: for purposes of comparison with the 'typical' UK picture, income for the University and colleges has in this case been combined.

2.22 Oxford differs from this pattern in certain important respects, as Figure 2.4 below illustrates.

2.23 We may note in particular that Oxford's income shows a greater diversity of funding sources, while research funding comprises a much bigger proportion of its income than for the 'typical' UK university. Oxford is not as dependent on funding council income as the 'typical' institution, although such income still forms a major component of the total.

II: Developments in Oxford in the last thirty years

2.24 It will be clear from some of the comparisons between Oxford and the overall UK position given above that Oxford is not now typical of UK universities. This does not however mean that it has remained unchanged over the last thirty years. Oxford may often be thought of - particularly by those not at present working within it - as representative of unchanging stability. Continuity of purpose and the endurance of underlying principles and structures are certainly among its important characteristics. However, it is often easy to forget that many aspects of Oxford which are taken for granted are in fact recent innovations, and elements of continuity should not be allowed to obscure the considerable changes which have taken place in the last thirty years. In this section we consider further some of these changes, and the particular features of Oxford's current position which form an important background element to the rest of this report.

Oxford's size

2.25 Oxford is now a much bigger university than it was in the mid-1960s. As we noted above, between 1965-6 and 1995-6, total numbers of students in residence in the University rose from 9,808 to 15,236, an increase of over 70 per cent.[28] Growth in undergraduate student numbers from 7,528 in 1965-6 to 10,514 in 1995-6 contributed substantially to this overall increase. Proportionately, however, the growth in graduate numbers has been even more striking, with an increase from 2,026 in 1965-6 to 4,413 in 1995-6. Graduate students now make up almost 30% of the total student body. In addition, the University organises a substantial and thriving continuing education programme, with over 15,000 enrolments each year, comprising students taking award bearing and non-award bearing courses, continuing professional development courses, and a large body of international programmes.

Implications for colleges

2.26 This considerable growth in student numbers has had important implications for the colleges. To some extent, the increase in the student population has been accommodated by the foundation of new societies: in 1966, there were 34 colleges and five permanent private halls (PPHs), whereas by 1996, there were 39 colleges in addition to six PPHs (some of the increase in the former was a result of PPHs developing into full colleges, but a number of new PPHs have also been designated). However, this increase in the number of societies was insufficient to absorb all the increase in student numbers, which has in part been accommodated by a growth in the average size of colleges.[29] Figure 2.5 summarises this position.

Figure 2.5: Size of Oxford colleges 1965-6 and 1995-6 (excluding graduate colleges)

    1965-6    1995-6
   u/g p/g  Total  u/g  p/g Total
Largest  321  119  440  457  121  578
 Smallest  162  48  210  223  76  299
 Median  265  75  340  342  107  449

Source: Oxford University Gazette annual student numbers supplements

2.27 These changes have affected college life in many ways. Change in the size of college fellowships has been one result. Governing bodies had already grown in size in the 1950s and early 1960s but in 1965-6 the average size of governing bodies was only 28. Some colleges (e.g. Hertford and Somerville) had governing bodies of fewer than 20 members, and Balliol and Magdalen, with 51 members each, were unusually large. By the mid-1990s the position had changed, with governing bodies in general having grown to between 40 and 50 members. Much of this growth took place in the 1970s, when numbers of academic staff in the University grew rapidly.[30]

2.28 Most colleges have responded to increases in the size of their fellowships and their student body by undertaking substantial building programmes. Colleges have thus grown physically as well as in terms of the number of senior and junior members. Moreover colleges now provide accommodation for almost all of their undergraduates who want it, and for many of their graduate students. Information collected by the University's Accommodation Office shows that in 1973-4 the colleges provided some 6,730 'units' of accommodation, but in 1996-7 this had risen to 12,019. One way of considering this growth is that extra student accommodation equivalent to that to be found in a medium-sized UK university campus has been built by colleges in Oxford in a little over 20 years.

2.29 A further important change during the last thirty years is that now all but one of the colleges admit both men and women, whereas there were no mixed colleges in 1965-6. This change occurred very rapidly: in 1974 no Oxford college admitting undergraduates contained fellows or students of both sexes, but by the end of 1985 only two remained single-sex.[31] This change has been accompanied by an increase in the proportion of students (both undergraduate and graduate) who are women: in 1965-6 16.5 per cent of students were female, whereas in 1995-6 the proportion had risen to nearly 43 per cent. There has however been only a modest rise in the proportion of female academic staff: at the time of the Franks Report about 13 per cent of academic staff were women; by 1995-6 this had risen to 16 per cent.

Staffing structures

2.30 Figure 2.6 shows the numbers of staff on the University payroll in different staff groups as at 31 December 1995.

Figure 2.6 : Staff on the University payroll - 31 December 1995

 Staff category  Established  Outside grant  Other unestablished  Total
 Academic  1,273  13  90  1,376
 - Research  211  1,622  285  2,118
 - Administrative  222  6  51  279
 - Computer[32]  16  0  2  18
 - Library  101  1  31  133
 - Technical  543  279  101  923
 Clerical  889  164  343  1,396
 Ancillary  343  22  178  543
 TOTAL  3,598  2,107  1,081  6,786


2.31 Significant changes have taken place over the last thirty years in Oxford's staffing structures. Comparable data spanning the whole of the period since the publication of the Franks report is not available, but a number of trends are clear. The number of established academic staff in the University has increased substantially since the mid-1960s, so that for example the total of university and CUF lecturers was 610 in 1965-6 and had grown to 786 by 1975-6 and 909 in 1995-6.[33] Even more striking has been the considerable growth in the numbers of academic-related staff, particularly those employed to undertake research who now number over 2,000 (more than the total - approximately 1,300 - of established academic staff). Most of these research staff (some 90 per cent) are employed on fixed-term contracts in posts supported by external income of one kind or another. The staff survey which was conducted in Hilary Term 1996 suggests, as we noted in Chapter 1, that, as well as making a valuable contribution to the University's overall research effort, over a quarter of these research staff also undertake at least some teaching. The majority of those employed by the University in this way would appear to have no college attachments, although there is no comprehensive or reliable data on their college affiliations.

2.32 There also appears to have been considerable growth in the numbers of staff employed by colleges, who are not fellows but who are appointed either on fixed-term contracts or under other arrangements to undertake teaching, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Lack of data makes it impossible accurately to plot changes over the last thirty years. However, a survey of colleges which we conducted in Hilary Term 1996[34] revealed that there were some 1,250 individuals who were not employed by the University but who were employed on one basis or another (not necessarily full-time) by colleges to undertake teaching. These included stipendiary lecturers, but also many others who apparently held no formal position within the college. Some of those teaching for colleges were graduate students, and the survey of graduate students conducted in Hilary Term 1996 shows that 27 per cent of graduate students had at some point taught for a college or for the University.

2.33 Taken together, this data shows that established academic staff holding conventional academic appointments as professors, readers or lecturers now form a minority of those undertaking teaching and research in Oxford. This has considerable implications for the structure and ethos of the University. We consider elsewhere in this report, and especially in Chapter 11, some of the implications of this position.

The University's income

2.34 Some of the changes in the profile of the University's teaching and research staff noted above reflect changes in the pattern of its income. Between 1965-6 and 1995-6 there was over a five fold increase in real terms in the value of the University's income from external research grants and contracts. In 1965-6 such income formed approximately 17 per cent of the University's total income; by 1995-6 this had risen to almost 40 per cent.[35] Figure 2.7 illustrates this growth. In 1965-6 funding council grants and student fees made up 72 per cent of the University's total income; in 1995-6 the equivalent figure was 44 per cent. This means that the University is increasingly reliant on funding whose purpose is restricted; moreover much research grant income does not cover the full costs of the activity which it is supporting. We discuss the implications of this point elsewhere.

Figure 2.7: University of Oxford: External Research Grant and Contrats Income 1965-6 to 1995-6

University of Oxford: External Research Grant and Contrats Income 1965-6 to 1995-6

Note: Cash figures are taken from the University's annual financial statements; they have been rebased using the UPPI and its predecessor to give real terms figures.

2.35 Another significant development in the last ten years has been the growth of Oxford's efforts to raise funds for development activity. Fundraising campaigns on behalf both of individual colleges and of the central University have raised substantial sums. The University conducted a Development Campaign in 1988 which ran until September 1994. Since then a Development Programme has been raising funds for specific projects. In total over £700 million has been raised, of which some £500 million was money to support research, and £200 million primarily for endowment of posts, provision of scholarships and building development.

Oxford's governance

2.36 A number of changes were introduced into Oxford's system of governance following the Franks Report of 1966.[36] For example, the Curators of the University Chest became responsible to Council, while new arrangements were introduced for the election of the Vice-Chancellor, whereby eligibility was extended to all members of Congregation (rather than being restricted simply to heads of houses), and the period of office was extended from two to four years. However, as we have noted already,[37] what is striking is the number of changes advocated by the Franks Commission which were not eventually adopted. These included the proposal that there should be a Council of Colleges, working under the Hebdomadal Council, which would be able to commit the colleges by majority voting and to speak authoritatively on their behalf. Instead, the Conference of Colleges was established, whose function is essentially consultative. Similarly, the Franks Report's proposal for the re-organisation of the faculty structure under the General Board so that the then 16 faculty boards would be replaced by five 'super boards' was not adopted.

2.37 Since the time of the Franks Report the degree of continuity is as striking as the degree of change: colleges have remained fully autonomous institutions, and existing faculty board structures have remained largely intact. Such developments as have taken place in Oxford's system of governance since the mid-1960s have largely been evolutionary, with new structures being grafted onto existing ones. Thus there has been a growth of inter-faculty committees, and of other bodies such as the Bioscience Research Board, while the Committee of Heads of Science Departments has assumed increasing importance (even though it has no statutory basis). There has been a tendency for new committees and new bodies to be established which seek to bypass existing structures, and for existing structures to adapt to fulfil different roles rather than be abolished. This has led to a considerable degree of complexity, and a division of responsibility between different bodies that is not always clear.

The international context

2.38 Oxford is an institution which operates within an international context. Many staff and students (both graduate and undergraduate) come from outside the UK and competition for non-governmental research funding increasingly operates at an international level. Oxford's alumni live all over the world, and both the University and the colleges devote considerable effort to maintaining contact with them. A number of specific issues arise from Oxford's international profile which, though not unique within British higher education, are certainly atypical. One is that its academic salaries and other terms and conditions of service need to be sufficient to compete with leading universities in North America, Western Europe and the Far East. Another is the increasing pressure to compete to provide scholarships for outstanding graduate students who may well otherwise attend the leading North American universities. A third is that a considerable amount of the Vice-Chancellor's time is now spent on overseas travel, representing the University especially on work connected with the Development Programme. All these factors have implications for the University's future operation and structure.

III: Conclusion

2.39 The brief review presented in this chapter underlines the degree of continuity in Oxford since the time of the Franks Report as well as the extent of change. Oxford remains a collegiate University and it also remains a self-governing academic institution, with a high degree of democracy in its governmental structure. Furthermore, throughout the period under review it has managed to maintain its position as an institution of international repute, conducting teaching and research across a wide range of subjects, aiming at and usually achieving the highest standards. Change however has been equally important, and Oxford is now a much bigger university than it was thirty years ago (whether measured in terms of student numbers, of staff numbers, or of annual turnover).

2.40 In the light of the changes sketched above, it is sensible for Oxford to reflect on its place within the UK higher education sector. It is operating within a higher education system in which its own interests and concerns are not always shared by the majority of other institutions. It can no longer be regarded as typical of higher education institutions in the UK, or as providing a model for other universities. It is now an atypical university in many respects, catering only for a small proportion of those students who enter higher education. Oxford must seek to define its position in this new world, and this will require a more conscious effort than has perhaps been necessary in the past.

2.41 The Introduction to the Franks Report stated:[38] 'The last half century has been one of varied experiment in Oxford: in the course of these experiments important choices have been made which have altered its nature. But such choices have been taken one by one and often under pressure. As a result Oxford has not fully understood the change in direction which has been involved: nor has it fully appreciated its own part in the scheme of twentieth century education. In consequence its efforts have too often been uncoordinated and its explanation of itself has lacked coherence.'

2.42 These points are still valid today. The University must place itself in a position where it can make well informed choices about the future direction it wishes to take, and set detailed decisions within an agreed overall framework. Many of the recommendations which we make in the remainder of this report are designed to help Oxford to do this.

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