Robbins's foregone conclusion

March 15, 1996

If the Robbins report is anything to go by, Dearing and his committee may decide to disregard the evidence presented to it when making their recommendations for higher education, says James Tooley.

The membership of Sir Ron Dearing's committee to review higher education will be decided shortly. But its members may well decide the nature of the final recommendations irrespective of the evidence presented, if the precedent of the Robbins report is anything to go by.

In my view, it might have been the predilections of the committee members which, to a certain extent, determined the Robbins report conclusions.

Robbins's sentiments are well known: "Both in general cultural standards and in competitive intellectual power, vigorous action is needed to avert the danger of a serious relative decline in this country's standing."

The only way to resolve Britain's deleterious position, argued Robbins back in the early 1960s, was by a great expansion of higher education, funded entirely through additional public spending. However, when the evidence presented to the committee is reviewed, it is hard to see how this conclusion could possibly be arrived at.

Far more plausible conclusions would be, first, that there is no established connection between economic and social development and higher education (witness Germany). Second, Britain was doing well in relation to its European competitors, and, at most some temporary expansion was needed to cater for the postwar bulge.

Third, where Britain fell short in comparison to the United States was in the lack of private finance in higher education.

How did I arrive at these contrary conclusions? Consider the numbers entering higher education. The evidence was presented to Robbins, and the conclusion drawn, that "the British system came some way down that list".

True, out of seven countries reviewed, Britain came fifth. But this might be due to a rather misleading way of reporting the statistics, for Britain with 4.5 per cent of the relevant population entering higher education was higher than Germany (4 per cent) and the Netherlands (4 per cent), and roughly comparable with the USSR (5 per cent).

Britain's entry figures were inferior only to France's (7 per cent), Sweden's (10 per cent) and the US's (20 per cent). So another conclusion to be drawn might have been that "the British system does not compare unfavourably as far as entry figures are concerned".

Moreover, as Britain had a much lower wastage rate than other countries it was particularly important to examine graduation rates. With these, Britain came out far better, at 5.6 per cent of the relevant age group, almost twice as high as France and Germany (3 per cent), roughly the same as Sweden (6 per cent) and not very far behind the USSR (7 per cent).

But, instead of using these figures to trumpet the achievements of the British system, the Robbins committee pointed out that "the output of British higher education is, in very important respects, smaller than that of the Soviet Union or the United States". And it is this comparison which steals the day. Even though it is admitted that "there may be much dispute about the standard of some first degrees in the United States", this does not seem to matter: "Undeniably," said Robbins, "a much greater proportion of Americans get degrees."

In case there should still be any wavering, the report added: "The total advantage of higher education to a country or to its people cannot be fully described in terms of the numbers who successfully complete it. Those who abandon higher education in other countries may yet be more useful citizens in the community on account of their experience."

But Robbins did not consider the possibility that these failed young people, with debts, and earnings and skills foregone, might also be rather less useful citizens "on account of their experience".

The German example is perhaps the most interesting of all. First, in an appendix to the report, it was noted that in Germany there were no signs of an increase in "the proportion of the age group completing a secondary education in the gymnasien (grammar schools) and obtaining the qualifications for university entrance", even though this proportion was lower than in Britain and France.

The implication is clear: "This is most surprising in view of the recent economic growth of Germany, for in most western countries prosperity is thought to be a main reason why a steadily increasing proportion of young people desire to complete secondary education and proceed to further study."

Now, is not the finding that the growth of the most important economy of Western Europe was not caused by an expansion of higher education worth analysing in detail? Curiously, the final report did not even mention it.

Indeed, when the connection between economic and social development and higher education was explored, the conclusion was: "The evidence is very strong. The communities that have paid most attention to higher studies have, in general, been the most obviously progressive in respect of income and wealth." Given the German counter-example, this seems disingenuous.

What of Robbins's passion for the US? Ignoring the admittedly questionable quality of degrees in the US, what was the single most important difference between the higher education systems in these two countries? In the evidence given to the Robbins committee it was surely private finance.

With regard to public expenditure on higher education, Britain spent the greatest proportion of GNP of all the countries reviewed: 1962/63 figures showed Britain, with 0.8 per cent of GNP spent on higher education, equal to the US and USSR, and much greater than France (0.2 per cent), Germany (0.4 per cent) and Sweden (0.5 per cent).

Where Britain fell short, particularly in comparison with North America, was in terms of private expenditure: only 10 per cent of all higher education expenditure in Britain was from private sources, compared to 31 per cent in the US. But again, this fact was only mentioned in passing in the final report, and ignored completely when finance was considered, and the recommendations made.

The Robbins report raises doubts about how objective these types of committees can really be. Let us hope that the Dearing review of higher education pays attention to the evidence submitted.

What Dearing should be considering is why government is involved in education at all. Once the justifications are examined, it seems that the only intervention required in higher education would be to guarantee and collect through the tax system, income-contingent loans for students. With this private source of funding making up the bulk of their income, universities could be liberated from the stultifying weight of regulation.

Similar concerns apply throughout the education system, as I argue in a paper called Education Without the State to be published next month.

One of the concrete proposals therein is to lower the school-leaving age to 14, and simultaneously give young people two years' worth of funds in a learning account, to finance their educational and training aspirations when they desire.

Perhaps the Dearing review would be interested in such a measure, genuinely enhancing of the "learning society", the development of which is part of their mandate to examine.

James Tooley is university research fellow, school of education, University of Manchester and director of the education and training unit, Institute of Economic Affairs.

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