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Before and after the Second World War

Before the Second World War

The twentieth century saw great expansion in the number of British universities, the courses offered and the size of the student body. By the 1970s universities - previously the domain of the social elite - provided mass higher education. The number of women attending university also increased greatly, and teaching provision expanded from the core themes of the classical curriculum to include a range of emerging subjects and specialities.

From 1919 the Universities Grants Committee administered central government funding of universities under the guidance of the Treasury. Despite expansion during the interwar period, universities were peripheral to Cabinet discussion until the Second World War.

After the Second World War

The Second World War was a catalyst for change in universities, in both structure and curricula. The Butler Education Act 1944 signalled the expansion of secondary education and a greater demand for university places. By the late 1950s there was a shortfall of university places due to the increasing number of students leaving school with university-entrance qualifications. The higher education sector needed expanding.

The dominance of classical education was questioned, and policy makers became convinced of the importance of science and technology. The Percy Report of 1945 recommended the transformation of some technical colleges into universities, and the establishment of 'institutes of technology'. The Barlow Report of 1946 on 'Scientific Manpower' identified a critical shortage of scientists and recommended an 'ambitious programme of university expansion'. This would be funded by the Exchequer and would double the annual output of science graduates.

In 1960 the Central Advisory Council report under Sir Geoffrey Crowther recommended raising the school leaving age to 16, and compulsory part-time education to 18. This provoked speculation about the need for more university places and the expansion of university facilities. By 1961 less than 15 per cent of applications to university were successful.

The 1960s saw considerable growth in higher education, and the founding of many new institutions was allied to the expansion of existing universities. In 1962 the government outlined a five-year plan to raise student numbers from 110,000 to 150,000 over the following five years, through an increase of funding from £104 million to £165 million per year.