HE Power List: Haldane, Robbins & Dearing

No not a firm of provincial solicitors or a minor prog rock band of the early 1960s. Not even joint authors of a book or an obscure academic article. Although all three have been referenced hundreds or perhaps thousands of times in such works. Quite possibly more than any others.

They are of course, three of the most influential figures in the history of higher education in the UK: Richard Haldane, Lionel Robbins and Ron Dearing and which is why they have a very respectable showing on the 2015 HE Power List.

Arguably they remain as influential today as they were at their various moments in the 20th Century. Even in the last year they have been referenced significantly by David Willetts, Liam Byrne, George Osborne, Greg Clark, Vince Cable and others in major policy papers or announcements. This is despite them all being long gone. Sadly, because it would have been fascinating to know what each thought of the more recent policy discussions.

They died in 1928, 1984 and 2009 respectively, but the peak of their influence on higher education came even earlier, in 1918, 1963 and 1997. But they cast long and important shadows. Marking 50 years since the Robbins Report, David Willetts successfully campaigned to abolish Student Number Controls. He did it via a pamphlet entitled ‘Robbins Revisited’ containing his blueprint for further expansion. Liam Byrne responded a few months later with ‘Robbins Rebooted’ with his own recipe for reform in higher education.

Lionel Robbins chaired the committee that recommended significant expansion of UK higher education in the 1960s. His report ushered in several new universities including those at Warwick, York, Essex and Lancaster. For a while they were known as the ‘Shakespeare universities’, occasionally as ‘plate glass’, but more often today as ‘world class’. But his most famous recommendation centred on the expansion of the system so that all those with the desire and ability could go. For the many that did, they were often the first in the families or communities to do so.

Richard Haldane started life a Liberal but became a Labour Lord Chancellor. He helped to set up LSE and Imperial College and recommended the founding of the University Grants Committee – the forerunner of HEFCE and other funding councils. But Haldane is mainly remembered for his principles relating to research funding, published in 1918.

They still get trundled out by every minister, vice chancellor and research council CEO when discussing who should make decisions about the allocation of research funding. Haldane’s six principles take up several paragraphs in the Government’s Science and Innovation Strategy and are repeated verbatim. The fourth of his recommendations points is the one that has been designated the ‘Haldane Principle’, but (according to the BIS strategy) all six are as pertinent now as they were in 1918. The first research council to be created as a result of the Haldane Report was the Medical Research Council.

Sir Ron Dearing has more recently left us, but his influence hasn’t. He died in 2009. A former civil servant he is best remembered for three things in the 1997 HE report; firstly recommending tuition fees to restore the unit of funding; secondly setting out the principle whereby those that benefit should help to fund universities and finally prioritising funding for expansion to those institutions able to ‘widen participation’. There was much more of course, not least his detailed narrative of an emerging knowledge economy, globalisation and international competition.

Taken together, they create something like a constitution for universities today. The so-called ‘Robbins principle’ declaring 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 Haldane’s principle or ‘the choice of how and by whom research should be conducted should be left to the decision of experts’. Dearing’s commitment to maintaining the ‘unit of funding’ and ‘recommending that students make contributions to the cost of their higher education once they are in work’. And Dearing, like the others, stressed how important universities were to the UK, describing them as ‘part of the conscience of a democratic society’.

Reinterpreted, Revisited and Rebooted. Celebrated and definitely remembered. If any politician wants to significantly rethink higher education policy – whether teaching, research or funding – first they have to start by paying respects to one or all of these three figures. They will then have to explain why they want to do something differently. Finally they will almost certainly claim to be following in one or more of their footsteps because what each said still matters today. Influential? Without any doubt. We all have some reason or other to be grateful for them and the influence that their work still has on higher education today. 

Read the 2015 HE Power List in full

1 thoughts on “HE Power List: Haldane, Robbins & Dearing”

  1. Pleased that you’ve put R B Haldane in this exalted company.

    The ‘Principle’ still holds, but we’e not necessarily looked enough at his other higher education work, despite Eric Ashby’s excellent book on it. You could credit him with the way the system of civic universities developed in the 20th Centrury. He was a major promoter of them and he fought for them to have indepdence from federal structures at the turn of the century. He took his vision of a teaching university into his reforms of London, and he was a supporter of the efforts to found the LSE.

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