Robbins: 50 years later

Experts discuss the development and legacy of the epochal report on its golden anniversary

October 24, 2013
Source: Getty

Fifty years ago, less than 5 per cent of young Britons went to university (and just under a quarter of them were women).

In 1963, the all-too-common attitude seemed to be “what does a girl need education for?”, says Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics; historically, getting a degree had been about “bright young men” learning from scholars and had little to do with career prospects.

Many people, including those in higher education, felt that to expand the system would be to damage it. Yet in 2013, the latest official figures show that almost 50 per cent of young people in the UK attend university.

So what propelled this remarkable transformation?

The publication of The Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins, commissioned in 1961 by Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government and chaired by Lionel Robbins, the famous economist and then head of the economics department at the LSE, is generally seen as a turning point, setting the sector on the path to expansion.

The Robbins committee was tasked with reviewing the pattern of full-time higher education in the UK. At the time, there was “a climate of opposition to expansion that I think is quite difficult to think back to now”, says Howard Glennerster, emeritus professor of social administration at the LSE, who then worked for the Labour Party’s research department and was secretary of a study group set up to parallel the Robbins committee.

Labour’s group asked members of the Association of University Teachers for their views on significant expansion.

“One said it would be absolutely appalling,” Glennerster remembers. “They said: ‘We’re already scraping the barrel and to have any more people to teach who are unable to grasp the level of the higher education world would in the end destroy its quality.’”

When the Robbins committee unveiled its report in October 1963, however, it reached a very different conclusion: far from “scraping the barrel”, the pool of talent being denied entry was large and would grow in depth as the impact of post-war education reforms – which raised the school-leaving age and introduced the tripartite system of secondary education – filtered through the system. 

The so-called “Robbins principle” was established, which declared that university places “should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”.

The Robbins report called for the immediate expansion of the sector and recommended that advanced further education institutions known as colleges of advanced technology should be awarded university status. It also set out principles about the nature and purpose of higher education.

“Until Robbins, no one had really asked the question: ‘Why do we have higher education? Why is it important?’” says Michael Shattock, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, University of London.

To answer these questions, Shattock explains, Robbins delineated four objectives for tertiary study: to teach skills; to produce cultivated men and women; to maintain research in balance with teaching; and to promote common standards of citizenship.

“These”, he says, “are principles that most people of a liberal mind can stand behind even 50 years later.”

The messages were delivered in a 335-page report containing 178 recommendations, accompanied by five volumes of research. The conclusions were accepted by the government on 24 October within 24 hours of publication.

Girls punting on the river

Claus Moser, Baron Moser, from 1961 to 1970 professor of social statistics at the LSE, was hand-picked by Robbins to lead his research team. Now 90, the statistician believes no members of the 12-person committee that he advised are living, although, as he attended all of its meetings, he regards himself as, in effect, its 13th member. He describes his work for the committee as “roughly speaking the most important thing I’ve done in my life”.

Robbins himself firmly believed that the report had to be so solidly based in evidence that whatever it recommended would be accepted, says Moser.

“At the first meeting of the committee…Robbins said he was not prepared to make any recommendations that could not be backed up by good evidence, meaning statistical evidence and the views of a wide range of people.”

He swiftly rejected the idea of examining whether the number of students met the UK’s employment needs, Moser adds: “Lionel said that all the studies there have ever been about how many people in a particular job are needed by society were always wrong.”

Instead, the committee turned its attention to higher education demand and supply.

Moser says: “Our job was to try to do research into how many kids [were] both qualified to go to university courses and…would like to go.”

For Moser, the most influential volume of the report, which also included the most original research, was its first appendix, The demand for places in higher education.

“Without that there would have been no Robbins report,” he says.

Barr agrees that careful statistical work underpinned the report’s success by “completely blowing out of the water the ‘more means worse’ argument”.

The committee drew on the emerging field of sociology of education, led in the UK in the 1950s by figures such as Chelly Halsey and Jean Floud. This had begun to show the major role social class played in educational achievement, explains Glennerster.

Not only were an increasing percentage of teenagers obtaining the qualifications needed to enter university but intelligence testing also showed that a large proportion of young people from working-class homes were intellectually capable yet often did badly in the 11-plus examination, which divided children into grammar school and secondary modern cohorts. This was backed up by the first longitudinal study of all British children born in one week (1-7 March 1946), published by J. W. B. Douglas in 1964, the early results of which the committee was privileged to see. It tracked the schooling, health, family background and intellectual capacity of a nationally representative sample.

In light of such evidence, the notion that the great difference between public school- and grammar school-educated university entrance numbers was down to ability “stretched credulity”, says Barr.

There were few restrictions on the resources available to the committee. It gathered more than 400 submissions of evidence and formally interviewed the representatives of 90 organisations. The committee itself met more than 110 times and went on seven visits abroad between 1961 and 1963. The committee estimated the report’s gross cost at £128,770 (about £2.3 million today), including the equivalent of £800,000 on sample surveys.

This, says Shattock, stands in stark contrast to the most recent review to shake up British higher education, the 2010 Browne Review: it took 11 months to conclude and spent £68,375 on research, the vast bulk of it on an opinion survey.

Lord Dearing, whose 1997 report recommended the introduction of tuition fees supported by government loans, “was only given a year so had to use research already done”, adds Shattock. “Browne, as far as you can see, didn’t even do that. So there was a huge difference in depth.”

Lionel Robbins

Moser remembers Robbins as a man with a “fantastic brain coupled with a very wide interest in the world”.

“I always sat next to him during meetings and saw that he never wrote anything down, but never forgot a single thing a witness said. Weeks later he would say ‘so and so came a month ago and on this point said so and so’. So he had extraordinary powers of concentration and memory.”

Robbins wrote the report himself, Moser recalls, although not without criticism from committee members who were “quite courageous” in opposing much of the first draft.

After two days of the committee reviewing the pages, Robbins went back to his country house and rewrote the report in two days, producing a “beautifully written” final draft that then changed very little prior to publication. The Robbins report concluded that even in the short term, at least 10 per cent of young people could meet the challenge of university, and in the longer run, into the 1980s, perhaps 15 per cent. Based on this and other factors, such as an expanding population, the report called for a near-trebling of places.

At the time of publication, the government was led by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who had taken over just five days earlier after Macmillan’s resignation because of ill health and the fallout from the Profumo affair.

The decision to accept the report was not taken lightly: it meant agreeing to the assumption that the government would pay for expansion, continuing a finance system in which mandatory state awards went to all full-time undergraduates. This was despite the government facing political pressure on spending similar to that facing the coalition today, Shattock recalls.

And there was plenty of opposition to the proposals: Moser and fellow LSE researcher Richard (now Lord) Layard, who also advised the committee, set up a unit responding to all the people writing in complaint to The Times, telling them they were wrong and why.

While Moser believes that the government’s swift acceptance of the report was down to the persuasive nature of its evidence, others, such as Vernon Bogdanor, research professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King’s College London, have argued that the motive was more political.

After all, Labour was on track to win the next general election and its leader, Harold Wilson, had just delivered his famous speech at the 1963 party conference in which he argued that Britain would be “forged in the white heat” of technological revolution.

Writing in these pages in 2010, Bogdanor argued that Douglas-Home was “anxious to rebut accusations that his government was dominated by aristocrats more at home on the grouse moors than in the universities”.

In 1986, Shattock had the opportunity to ask Edward Heath, who had been secretary of state for industry, trade and regional development in 1963, why the government had responded so quickly.

“He said: ‘We had no choice, politically’,” Shattock recounts. “The government badly needed good news and there was Robbins presenting it.”

The rapid response may also have had something to do with the atmosphere of the 1960s and shifting social attitudes.

Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, argues that “in some ways Robbins was pushing at an open door in terms of public opinion and demand”.

Robbins was an interesting choice to lead the commission. Far from being a left-wing radical, says Glennerster, he had been Winston Churchill’s wartime economic adviser and was variously described as a conservative Establishment figure, a liberal, a believer in market forces and the “guardian of conservatism” at the LSE.

Student teachers at King Alfred's College

According to Moser – who calls himself “not quite Lionel’s closest friend, but close to that” – Robbins’ own views changed during the review. Initially, he was not convinced there was much need to expand. “He changed his mind from the beginning to the end because the figures were so convincing. And he became convinced and he then convinced the committee,” Moser recalls.

Did this make Robbins the perfect person to deliver the tricky message? Glennerster thinks that the Ministry of Education “knew what the evidence was. It wanted it out there and wanted it put across by someone with whom it would be difficult to argue.”

Given his politics, “very few people would have expected him to write a progressive report”, says Moser. “And, my God, this was progressive – it changed the whole university world in the direction of expansion.”

Funding the expansion, however, remained a difficult issue. The year before publication, there had been an enormous row in the House of Commons because the Treasury – which directly held the academy’s purse strings through the University Grants Committee – had turned down the UGC’s recommendations for expansion.

“What Robbins got right was to say that we should expand the system. What he didn’t do was talk about how to pay for it,” says Barr. Although evidence was submitted to the committee about the possibility of student loans, including articles by LSE colleagues on income-contingent repayments, the report did not take it on board, Barr adds.

Moser recalls that Robbins himself was “dead against loans”, although just two years after the publication of the report he changed his mind. “We of course discussed finance, it was part of our remit and we dealt with it…but Lionel as an economist had some kind of prejudice against loans, which were the obvious way of financing students,” he says.

Given Robbins’ background, Shattock finds it odd that the report did not fully tackle the question of funding. After all, Robbins was one of the UK’s top economists, sent to Washington alongside John Maynard Keynes at the end of the Second World War to negotiate the terms of a crucial multibillion-pound loan for a near-bankrupt Britain. “He was also chairman of the Financial Times. Yet only 26 pages of research in the Robbins report were devoted to finance,” he adds.

Tackling the question of funding then might have helped to avoid the 45 per cent reduction in the academy’s unit of resource between 1980 and 1997, Shattock adds.

Although the final report was equivocal on the issue, writing in THE last year, Nick Hillman, incoming director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and outgoing adviser to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, quotes from Susan Howson’s biography of Robbins that the committee’s internal deliberations concluded that loans might become “acceptable in about 10 years’ time”. In addition, a 1964 Treasury note portrayed the report as an argument for loans.

“I guess if you’re cynical you burst the dam and then try to work out the consequences, although they may not have thought of it in those terms at the time,” says Glennerster.

So what might Robbins, who died in 1984, have made of the UK’s higher education system today?

Shattock thinks he would probably approve of the expansion that has continued ever since the report was published. “Robbins is saying in the report: ‘The more people in higher education, the better the economy’,” he says.

He has no doubt that Robbins would have approved of Tony Blair’s 50 per cent target for university participation, announced in 1999.

Gervas Huxley, teaching fellow at the University of Bristol’s School of Economics, Finance and Management and the grandson of Robbins’ friend Sir Philip Hendy (director of the National Gallery from 1946 to 1967), is privileged to have had long conversations with the peer before his death.

He believes that although growth in the 1980s conformed with the report’s predictions, Robbins may have raised doubts about the expansion that occurred during the 1990s (from 14 per cent to around 30 per cent).

People walking into a building

The Robbins principle, Huxley argues, can be violated in two ways: by not enough students or by too many entering the system. “We lowered standards. Expansion in the 1990s was so rapid that at the margins students were turning up at university who didn’t really meet the Robbins criteria,” he says.

More importantly, Huxley adds, Robbins would have worried about whether universities were concentrating too much on research at the expense of teaching – fears he had in fact expressed in essays written in his final years.

The Robbins report defined a tutorial as four or fewer students, a situation that survives only in Oxbridge, he adds.

“If Lionel were around today, that’s what he would be talking about more than anything,” Huxley argues.

Scott thinks that the degree of political control expressed over education would seem to the peer to be the most alien feature of today’s system. “I don’t think Robbins could have envisaged the research assessment exercise, the Quality Assurance Agency or even the National Student Survey,” he says.

Although the academy has changed hugely, the Robbins report’s overarching concept still strikes a chord in UK higher education, says Petra Wend, vice-chancellor of Queen Margaret University.

Earlier this year, she was one of 19 Scottish principals to formally sign up to the Robbins principle. “We realised that we wanted to make a statement in Scotland that we believed in widening participation,” she says, listing the benefits of expansion for society, the economy and for individuals. “We think…that it is for all universities, whether ancient, charter or modern, to subscribe to that principle.”

Barr remembers Sir John Ashworth, director of the LSE from 1990 to 1996, once saying “rather unkindly” that “the Robbins report allowed the middle class to educate its daughters as well as its sons”. He believes this is an exaggeration: after the report, the polytechnics were allowed to award degrees, creating new higher education opportunities for many, and particularly for those from poorer backgrounds.

But Bogdanor has argued that the percentage of students from the families of unskilled workers attending university remained almost static in the 40 years post-Robbins.

What is incontrovertible is that before the report, the percentage of young Britons going to university was stuck at 4 to 5 per cent.

“At some point you need to look back and ask: ‘Was there a turning point?’ It was in the 1960s and it was due to the evidence that was building up,” says Glennerster.

“The flood went through the dam and started breaking more of the dam down, and we ended up with more than 40 per cent, not 15 per cent. Those dambusting qualities are the essence of Robbins.”

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