Pre-Robbins reforms

April 13, 2017

Phil Baty (“A growing concern sprouts new branches”, Young University Rankings 2017 supplement, 6 April) states that “the 1963 Robbins report heralded the birth of ‘plate glass’ universities such as UEA”. Not in the accepted meaning of the term.

The plate glass universities were established later in that decade, but had nothing to do with Lord Robbins’ review. They resulted from a decision by the University Grants Committee under Baron Wolfenden in 1957-58. The designation as universities of the Colleges of Advanced Technology, some of which feature in the above-mentioned supplement, was a recommendation of Lord Robbins, and gave inner cities some further stake in higher education, diminished when two of them moved to imitate their younger peers and set up outside ecclesiastical cities – Bath and Guildford. That reinforced the concept of universities as campus based and offering full-time rites of passage for the youth of the country, in the country as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge had been, to hide the behaviour of students.

The decision to reject bids from Middlesbrough, Swindon, Scunthorpe and other towns more involved with the “white heat of technology” may have contributed to the polytechnic policy of Anthony Crosland and Sir Toby Weaver, which ensured that the only institutions adding to the “Under 50” grouping for the next 40 years have been the University of Buckingham, the Open University and the reconstituted Ulster University.

Ian McNay
Professor emeritus of higher education and management
University of Greenwich


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