Debates about the legacy of the Robbins report on UK higher education tend to focus, unsurprisingly, on the huge expansion in the number of universities and students that followed its publication.
It is often overlooked that the 1963 study also set the scene for another significant development in the UK’s universities sector: the foundation of the Society for Research into Higher Education.
Lord Robbins’ report, which had been pioneering in its use of surveys and data to inform policy decisions, explicitly recommended that research into higher education be encouraged.
Thus it followed that the society was founded in 1965 with aims that remain very similar to its present-day mission: broadly, to promote research and, more specifically, to hold an annual conference, to host seminars and to encourage publication.
Fifty years on, the SRHE can point to a substantial legacy of its own: its work can claim to have sown the seeds for the creation in the 1980s of the research selectivity exercise, the forerunner of last year’s research excellence framework, and also what became the Quality Assurance Agency.
To mark the anniversary, a history of the SRHE’s first 25 years has been written by Michael Shattock, a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education and a former president of the society.
This work, to be published on 26 June, credits Nicolas Malleson, then the University of London’s director of research for student problems, as being the intellectual driver behind the SRHE’s formation.
On the initial governing body alongside Dr Malleson, the founding chairman, was an impressive array of higher education experts, including the society’s first president, Sir John (later Lord) Fulton, the vice-chancellor of University of Sussex.
At the end of 1965, the society had 58 corporate members, and this number rose to 179 six years later. However, Professor Shattock writes, the initial wave of post-Robbins enthusiasm was hard to sustain in the face of limited funding. Attendance at the annual conference was limited to about 100 researchers.
By the early 1970s, there was already evident a division, which continues in the society to this day, between those who believed that it should maintain a pure research focus on teaching and learning, and others who felt that the organisation should also take an interest in higher education policy and development.
It was the group with the wider view that prevailed, Professor Shattock writes. However, its aims were not fully realised until the 1980s, when an award of £250,000 from the Leverhulme Foundation allowed for the launch of a major programme of study into the future of higher education.
As part of this, seminars were held on topics such as access, funding and graduate employment, and they attracted participants including vice-chancellors, industrialists and civil servants.
The outcomes of each seminar were published as monographs, prompting Peter Brooke, higher education minister at the time, to describe the programme as being “probably the most systematic review of higher education policy [in the UK] by an organisation outside government that has ever been undertaken”.
Although the society’s most radical recommendation, for the introduction of a two-year pass degree with the option of an honours year or a master’s course, was never implemented, Professor Shattock says that other recommendations led to the creation of what would become the QAA and the REF.
According to Roger Brown, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, that landmark project also marked a turning point for the SRHE, and for higher education research more generally.
Despite being a vice-president of the society, he admits that the organisation nowadays “struggles to compete” against thinktanks and mission groups on policy issues, and he acknowledges that the discipline suffers more generally from most academics “tending to be interested in research about almost anything apart from higher education”.
“The Leverhulme project was in a way a high-water mark of the SRHE: nothing comparable has been produced by the SRHE or anybody else since,” Professor Brown said. “A golden generation won its spurs on that project, and there hasn’t really been a successor generation, or a successor project of that kind.”
Many SRHE members would accept that the organisation has come to focus more on teaching and learning since the Leverhulme project. But the SRHE’s second quarter-century includes many significant achievements.
Not only is the society on a much firmer financial footing than it used to be, its membership is also significantly larger, approaching 800 individuals. Attendance at its annual conference has risen significantly, to more than 350 in 2014.
Of course, the organisation has been able to ride the wave of the expansion of higher education and the parallel increase in the number of academics conducting research into it. But the SRHE has helped to foster this development, too, by hosting 12 networks that bring researchers together to discuss issues such as access, employability and technology.
The SRHE also awards research grants, publishes leading journals including Studies in Higher Education, and offers a range of professional development activities for early career researchers.
Professor Shattock said that the society was “critical” to the success of the UK’s university sector.
“The kind of research that people are doing into teaching methods and the student experience is the infrastructure of higher education,” he said. “If there wasn’t a society to encourage that kind of work, you would have to invent it.”
Some members argue that the SRHE cannot be blamed for lacking political punch when policymaking at universities has largely been taken out of the hands of academics, and has become more detached at government level as well.
Nevertheless, the society does have plans to address this, according to its director, Helen Perkins.
Next year, the SRHE will launch a new journal, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, that takes a long-term view of the sector’s development. And there are also plans to form a group called HE Futures, made up of senior leaders from the university sector and beyond, to advise the society on the direction of its research agenda.
Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University and an SRHE trustee, argued that the case for the society’s existence is stronger than ever in a marketised higher education sector.
“Questions about assessing the quality of research force us to think about our individual impact, but what we are trying to contribute to is a collective body of knowledge,” he said. “Having the society there to think about what we contribute together is really important.
“If we are going to have resonance and relevance to policymakers and wider society, it has to be focused on our collective products, rather than on big individual names doing important things.”