Can the spirit of the Robbins report be revived?

Gareth Williams laments the decline of higher education research since its heyday following an influential report

October 17, 2013

The Robbins report, published 50 years ago this month, is remembered as the document that sparked the huge modern expansion of the UK’s university system. But it is also the document that jump-started the academic study of higher education, in which the UK led the world until relatively recently.

Before 1963, we had the Universities Quarterly – effectively a predecessor of Twitter for past, present and aspiring vice-chancellors – and occasional articles about higher education in sociology journals. The Robbins Committee carried out the first policy-focused research into all aspects of higher education: undergraduates, postgraduates, university teachers, teacher training, further education and 21-year-olds. It also produced an analysis of a large number of historical records and a review of higher education provision in 10 major countries.

The committee appreciated that expansion needed to be underpinned by sound ongoing evidence, so it recommended that research into higher education “should be encouraged both by responsible organs of government and by private foundations”. This recommendation was heeded and the UK became an undisputed leader in the field for several decades, as the literature of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s shows.

Within a year of the report’s appearance, the London School of Economics had set up its Unit for Economic and Statistical Studies in Higher Education, under the leadership of the same two academics who had led the Robbins Committee’s research. The University of London also established a Teaching and Learning Development Centre, the Society for Research into Higher Education was launched and the statistical section of the Department of Education and Science formalised the publication of the main statistical series started by Robbins.

Many other universities also established higher education research centres and doctoral students began to concentrate on higher education as a distinct field of study. Specialist journals and magazines (including the Times Higher Education Supplement, as this magazine was then known) burgeoned; more than 20 can now be found in specialist university libraries.

As an economist, Lord Robbins was aware that one gap in his report was a failure to come to terms with the emerging, but still rather woolly, field of the economics of education. This gap was filled by the LSE unit, and its research into the higher productivity of graduates developed into a mainstream basis for policy. Direct scholarly links can be traced from this Robbins-inspired work and the two dominant higher education policy themes of today: the knowledge economy and the finance of undergraduate studies.

The report directly stimulated three broad areas of study: policy-oriented research based on economic and sociological analyses; management studies concerned with the governance and administration of institutions; and the psychology-based study of the effectiveness of different teaching methods. These three strands continue to coexist today, but the sharp focus inspired by Robbins has been lost. Higher education research has become so broad and so permeated by ideology and vested interests that the chances of any single enquiry marrying those three major areas of study and having the direct influence on policy enjoyed by the Robbins team and their immediate successors is remote.

The Dearing report of 1997, which called for the introduction of tuition fees, made some attempt to recapture the rigorous Robbins spirit, but the Browne report of 2010, which paved the way for the coalition government’s tripling of tuition fees, was more concerned with finding politically acceptable answers than with focusing significant research sharply on the issues.

However, it must be said that much higher education research in the UK today is insufficiently credible to pass the acid test of convincing sceptical Treasury officials and politicians. It can only be hoped that the publicity surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report will alert politicians and academics to what once was and what could be again.

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