We should give two cheers, not three, for the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report (“Here’s to class act that challenged tyranny of class in admissions”, Opinion, 11 July).
The report led to a massive expansion of higher education, making access dependent on ability rather than class. But this expansion led to three big mistakes.
First, students’ social status was undermined by the erosion of the value of grants and their eventual replacement with loans. Adequate grants in the 1960s and 1970s meant that most university students were equals, but this is no longer so because of growing dependence on family support.
Second, undergraduate courses were provided primarily in response to the number of applicants rather than economic need. In consequence, many graduates failed to find appropriate jobs. Equality of access to university has not been followed by equality of career opportunities.
Third, in the 1960s all universities were expected to be of similar academic, if not social, standard. Preferential funding has led to the emergence of “Oxbridge” as a divisively elite tier of higher education. Unequal access to the university system has been replaced by unjustifiable inequalities between institutions.
British universities have thrived in the past 50 years. However, the UK has become a much more unequal society, in marked economic decline relative to other countries. A major initiative such as Robbins needs to be judged by its effects on the nation, not on higher education institutions.