This article is more than 9 years old

Anderson appreciated

On the 54th Anniversary of the publication of Grants to Students - also known as the 'Anderson Report', David Malcolm reassesses its legacy for higher education. Re-examining Sir Colin Anderson's life, and responding to some of the recent criticisms levelled against him in the context of the 2012 system, today we revisit this much-overlooked report and the man that set in motion a period of radical change for UK higher education.
This article is more than 9 years old

David Malcolm is Head of Policy and Campaigns at the National Union of Students.

June 2nd 1960 will most likely be known to posterity as the date The Beatles performed their first concert using that name. For higher education, however, it was also a notable if now rather unregarded date: the publication of Grants to Students, better known as the Anderson Report, which provided the public policy foundation for the UK-wide mandatory grants system introduced from 1962. The report recommended replacing the haphazard system of discretionary, largely local authority-provided scholarships with a national entitlement scheme of grants for those who gained admission to university.

Its more illustrious successor, the Robbins Report, saw the golden anniversary of its publication commemorated last year by at least two academic conferences, various articles and the publication of a pamphlet, Robbins Revisited, by David Willetts.

By comparison, the impact of Anderson has been quite overlooked; so axiomatic now is the idea of a standard entitlement to student finance. There have been a few exceptions: in Robbins Revisited, Willetts in effect credits Anderson’s report, along with the founding of UCCA (now UCAS) in 1961, as creating a national higher education market in the UK.

In Anderson’s case, the specific contribution was in removing the financial barriers to studying away from home, where previously local authorities might only offer funding for study at the nearest institution, if indeed they offered a scholarship to the student at all.

Recent criticism

Anderson featured in a fascinating essay by Nick Hillman, then David Willetts’s special adviser and now Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, where he sought to put the more recent reforms to student finance in broader historical context. Hillman believes, correctly in my view, that the importance of the Anderson Report is largely ignored by historians of HE, though he takes a dim view of Anderson’s contribution to the debate on the financing of students.

From Hillman’s perspective, Sir Colin Anderson and his committee were either naïve or cavalier, dismissing the idea of introducing loans for maintenance in their report, and unconcerned by the impact on public finances of a system of grants alone.

Worse still, a majority of the committee recommended the abolition of the parental means test, though that item was ultimately rejected by the Macmillan government. Nevertheless, for Hillman, the very idea illustrates that the report was imprudent at best, and lacking any foresight given the cost of the system recommended was unsustainable as soon as student numbers increased.

But I believe this recent criticism is unfair and perhaps a product of fifty years of hindsight. First, the committee devoted an entire chapter of their report to estimating the costs of its proposals, and believed the modest increase in expenditure required to fund the new system to be affordable.

Moreover, in making their estimates the committee allowed for a 35% increase in student numbers, not unreasonable given they reported almost three years before Robbins set out his even greater ambitions.

Second, student loans as we understand them were an unpopular concept in a society with far greater antipathy to personal debt than today, with the evidence on their use limited; even in the United States they were not available on a general basis until 1965.

A full analysis of the Anderson report and the reasons the committee made the recommendations they did cannot be comprehensively outlined in an article of this length, though I would argue contemporary attitudes to the welfare state, and a belief that students should have the opportunity to live in ‘residence’ in their institutions to benefit fully from HE, are two obvious factors.

However, where I will make a start is by briefly outlining the biography of Sir Colin Anderson, and suggest that his background seems likely to have influenced his views on student finance and the recommendations in his report, especially given contemporary concerns about access.

Sir Colin

At first glance, Sir Colin Anderson does not seem to have been an obvious choice to chair the committee. An imposing figure (incidentally his portrait shows that he and Bill Rammell share a passing resemblance), Anderson was a shipping magnate, a scion of the family which had founded P&O, and his greatest passion was industrial design and art.

After attending Trinity College, Oxford in the early 1920s, he joined the family shipping firm and in the 1930s he was responsible for the design of the company’s latest ship, the Orion. It was this project which made his name, and he has been credited for creating, the first truly contemporary passenger liner, with then-unheard of innovations such as air-conditioning in the dining room.

The Orion, as well as the ships that followed, displayed significant collections of art, a particular passion for Anderson. Over the succeeding decades he would build up a reputation as a prominent and generous patron of new British artists such as Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. Not only did he buy their works, he often supported them with cash loans that seem rarely to have been repaid.

Anderson’s career in shipping would last almost 40 years. He was knighted in 1950, and as that decade progressed he then took on more and more outside interests, including the chair of the Royal College of Art between 1952 and 1956, and then chair of the British Employer’s Confederation from 1958.

In 1957 he accepted his first assignment as chair of a government committee – not the committee which provides the focus of this article, but a Ministry of Transport group tasked with creating a standard system of motorway signage. In a rather different and certainly more obvious contribution to British public life, this earlier Anderson committee developed the familiar blue-and-white design still in use today.

His selection as chair of the committee on student support therefore likely owed something to the combination of his noted business experience and his involvement both with the RCA and the Ministry of Transport. However, Anderson has some little-known connections to the history of higher education, as well as the early women’s movement – and these I believe provide essential context.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify and practice as a doctor in Britain, against much opposition and only through attendance at the Sorbonne rather than a domestic university, was Colin Anderson’s paternal grandmother. She was also the founder of the London School of Medicine for Women and eventually the first woman mayor in England.

Her sister Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett and her daughter Louisa Garrett Anderson – Colin’s great aunt and aunt – were both prominent suffragists and early feminists, Louisa herself qualifying as a physician and leading the Women’s Hospital Corps in the First World War.

When writing his committee’s report Sir Colin cannot have been unaware of his family history. In an era where the participation of women in HE was of far greater concern he would have been more mindful than most of the barriers women faced.

Certainly, the Anderson report, like Robbins, was keen to make sure that women students were treated no differently to men under any new system.

…we know that some families are more ready to encourage their sons than their daughters to go to a university… on the ground that while a boy will probably gain lasting benefit from doing so, a girl may well marry in a few years and her time at university will consequently be ‘wasted’. We take a broader view; in the national interest we want all potential talent to be given its chance to develop… (Grants for Students p.3)

The Robbins Report explicitly rejected loans as a means of student finance because of their potential impact on women’s access to higher education, and my hypothesis is that Anderson shared this view and wanted to avoid any arrangement that would prevent women going into higher education.

This, perhaps also combined with his experience of supporting struggling young artists, unable to pay back their loans, must surely have influenced his views about student support and whether loans were desirable or necessary for students.

Whatever the precise truth, fifty-four years on, there’s much more that can be done to explore the committee’s work and the report’s impact. Whether Anderson’s recommendations were, ultimately, beneficial or baleful, the report was a critical part of the backdrop to Robbins, a significant milestone in higher education policy and a fascinating document in its own right.

3 responses to “Anderson appreciated

  1. Excellent article David. Fascinating and provides a much needed contextual and clearly articulate background, to the mealie of student finance policy in England today.

  2. Just found this when looking for something else. As a first year student at London University in 1960, writing to my MP about the means testing of grants was my first introduction to student politics and eventually led to me becoming NUS Secretary at my college – and later an NUS staff member. Well done to David for reminding us all about those far off times

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