It is easy at an anniversary to lapse into hagiography and “The dambuster” (24 October) is guilty of this. While the Robbins report was an important document, its contribution to the expansion and development of the UK academy was not as great as those quoted in the article suggest.
For example, while contested, expansion of higher education was already on the agenda - and being enacted - as the Robbins committee was established. The University Grants Committee suggested the need for at least one new university in 1953 and by 1961 the government had agreed plans for institutions at Sussex, Essex, York and Warwick. Robbins was not just “pushing at an open door”: he was the spin doctor for a policy to which the government was already committed.
Similarly, the Anderson committee had already argued for a comprehensive system of student grants, which helped fuel expansion. It also argued (three years before Robbins) that awards and conditions of the grants should not vary according to gender, and that the benefits of higher education should be available to women even if they were to become full-time mothers.
Robbins did indeed identify four aims of higher education that have stood the test of time, although not quite in the terms stated in the article. However, in many ways it was reactionary: while the report referred to “instruction in skills to play a part in the general division of labour”, it was also made clear that “degrees are not appropriate to mark achievement in executive subjects”. Leaving aside the incongruity of this in relation to, say, medicine, the stance confirmed the British disdain for professionally and vocationally oriented higher education evident since at least the mid 19th century (and that continues to bedevil UK higher education today). Robbins even rejected an all-graduate teaching profession.
That there are now degrees in “executive subjects” such as education, art and a wide range of professions is a result of the government’s rejection of Robbins’ structural recommendations and the establishment in 1965 of the “binary” policy and a vigorous public sector headed by the polytechnics, brought into a “unified” system by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.
University of Brighton