Increasing the number of poorer students in higher education has not proved to be the “great social leveller” that it was expected to be in the Robbins era.
That was the argument set out by Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, at a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report held at the London School of Economics on 22 October.
Lord Robbins was head of the economics department at the LSE at the time his report was published.
Professor Vignoles said that the higher education participation rate for people with backgrounds in manual occupations was about 4 per cent at the time of Robbins in 1963, whereas by the year 2000 it was about 20 per cent – a “massive” rise.
But she noted that participation rates for richer students increased to an even greater extent, widening the gap. So “your relative chances of going to university as a poor student have actually worsened over this period”, she said.
Professor Vignoles put the gap in participation rates between those from non-manual and manual backgrounds at 23 percentage points at the time of Robbins, and 30 percentage points in 2000.
“Yes, we have ‘massified’ the system. But at the same time we had an increase in relative selectivity,” she added. “What we’ve obtained from that picture…is that [higher] education is not necessarily the great social leveller that we expected it to be.
“If you go back to Robbins, and read what he said, it’s very clear that education was going to be the route by which people were going to achieve social mobility.”
She added: “Despite the fact we’ve increased participation in higher education so much…it remains the case that the biggest single predictor of whether or not you’re likely to go to university is your family background.”
Professor Vignoles argued: “If we are going to solve the problem of poor achievement by poor kids, we need to invest in our school system.” She added that “actually if you’re serious about tackling widening participation, you need to invest much earlier”.
Further evidence on the issue was presented by Claire Callender, professor of higher education studies at Birkbeck, University of London, during another conference on Robbins held at the Institute of Education, University of London, on 24 October. Professor Callender, who is also a professor of higher education at the institute, said the social make-up of universities had remained relatively unchanged since the early 1960s. Only per cent of students in 2010-11 came from families where the main breadwinner had a “manual” occupation, compared with 25 per cent in 1960‑61.
“The massive expectation of Robbins and beyond was to spread educational opportunities more equally across the social classes…it has only been a partial success,” she told the conference.