In bemoaning the decline in higher education research since the publication of the Robbins report, Gareth Williams diplomatically sidesteps an assumption that Lord Robbins made that neither he nor other celebrants of the report’s golden anniversary might accept today (“Will Robbins ride again?”, Opinion, 17 October). Of course, Robbins urged the expansion of universities as an opportunity to attract talented people from all classes who might not otherwise have gone to Oxbridge. However, he did this in the spirit of what we would now call “human capital development”. In effect, Robbins regarded the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as intellectual protectionists that imposed artificially high barriers to student entry. His solution was to license the creation of rival high-quality institutions (such as my own) that were explicitly focused on contemporary subjects.
However, Robbins was not committed to an egalitarian welfare state in which everyone would have the right to go to university. Indeed, in the history of economics he is known as one of the staunchest opponents of the idea that “welfare” should be seen as a regulative principle of economic life, as that would sacrifice productivity on the altar of security. As economics chair at the London School of Economics, Robbins was responsible for hiring Friedrich Hayek, and in the post-war period he joined Hayek as a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, the club that is nowadays seen as the intellectual seedbed for neoliberalism.
In short, the Robbins report should be read as an early neoliberal document about opening up a previously closed market. The continued viability of its proposals should be judged in terms of whether human capital - or “talent” - is likely to be best exploited simply by making it easier for young people to enter university. A latter-day Robbins may well adopt a line much closer to King’s College London economist Alison Wolf’s - namely, that the real focus should be on supporting non-university education that is sensitive to other forms of talent.
Auguste Comte chair in social epistemology
University of Warwick