In a recent letter (18 July), I suggested that the Robbins report led to a mistake because the number of UK university places was driven by student demand rather than economic need. Paul Temple responded that determining student places by economic need would be tantamount to adopting “Communist bloc-style manpower planning” (“IQ and class acts”, Letters, 25 July).
I am opposed to Communism in the Marxist sense, if not the early Christian one, and to deterministic command economies generally. Such systems fail (as does capitalism) the tests of history and theoretical analysis. We need instead to use modern statistical techniques to influence, to the limited extent possible, a probabilistic economic system. From this perspective I have three points to make in reply to Temple.
First, various stakeholders in higher education should have some economic input without being involved in monolithic planning. The UK would have benefited post-Robbins if employers had been given a greater say in university funding, as the exceptional case of the University of Warwick showed.
Second, less advantaged university applicants have limited access to the information necessary to make well-considered choices. Therefore I doubt whether the average “graduate premium” translates adequately into good value for individual students.
Third (and most importantly), it would indeed be odd if wider access to university caused economic inequality. However, it has been hoped post-Robbins that higher education would act as an antidote to such unfairness. This purpose has not been fulfilled, unsurprisingly given that the root causes of inequality lie outside the academy.