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Remembering Robbins

This week sees the 50th anniversary of the Robbins Report. Appointed by the Government in February 1961, a committee led by Lord Robbins was instructed to review higher education and, “in the light of national needs and resources”, to advise “on what principles its long-term development should be based”. Peter Scott once described the resulting report as “the constitution of modern British higher education.” How and why do we remember Robbins? Tom Bailey takes the long view.
This article is more than 10 years old

Tom is a Strategic Manager at Imperial College London

This week sees the 50th anniversary of the Robbins Report. Appointed by the Government in February 1961, a committee led by Lord Robbins was instructed to review higher education and, “in the light of national needs and resources”, to advise “on what principles its long-term development should be based”. It was to make recommendations on: whether there should be changes to the system; whether new institutions should be founded; and whether the planning and co-ordination of the system should be altered. While certain reports are soon forgotten, the Robbins report remains hugely relevant and important. There are events this week from the Social Market Foundation (launching David Willett’s pamphlet, ‘Robbins Revisited’), the LSE & the Institute of Education on the report Peter Scott once described as “the constitution of modern British higher education.” How and why do we remember Robbins?

Firstly, we remember it for the core principles the committee set out to underpin the development of higher education. The committee set out four key aims of higher education, arguing that all had to be pursued simultaneously. These were: “instruction in skills”; “advancement of learning”; to “promote the general powers of the mind”; and “the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship”. We may place less emphasis on the last point but that section remains one of most lucid descriptions of the aims of higher education.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the report was the so-called Robbins principle, which was that “courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”. Robbins tackled the “more means worse” argument made by those who opposed expansion, such as Kingsley Amis. Instead, Robbins insisted both that it was not possible to “determine an upper limit to the number of people who could benefit from higher education” and that “equality of opportunity for all need not mean imposing limitations on some”. The Robbins principle has rarely been adhered to in practice; Government finances and wider spending priorities rather than demand has generally been the ultimate determinant of the supply of places.

However, the system did undergo huge expansion even if it has struggled to ever actually match demand. Expansion should not all be credited to Robbins: driven by the post-war bulge in population, rising educational attainment and rising prosperity, there was an increase from 217,000 students in 1962-63 up to 376,000 by 1967-8. However, Robbins made the case that underpinned the longer-term change towards a mass higher education system from one accessible to only a tiny minority of the population.

It is perhaps because of how these principles and core purposes have stood the test of time that the battle over how we remember the Robbins report is so fierce. Robbins might represent a better model of higher education for those who worry that the Coalition’s reforms risk doing “permanent and irreversible damage to a great university system”, also known as the CDBU outlook. For example, Stefan Collini attacked the 2011 HE White Paper as “the latest instalment in the campaign to replace the assumptions of Robbins’s world with those of McKinsey’s”. By contrast, the architects of the present reforms claim continuity from Robbins’ principles, if not necessarily in all of their policies. David Willetts wrote that the most recent reforms were “truer to Robbins than has been recognised”, claiming at the SMF event that the Government were “in many respects heirs to Robbins”. But of which of these two mutually exclusive claims is correct?

Finance and funding

On the point of financing higher education, the Robbins report took a different approach to who benefited from higher education and so should foot the bill. Current policy is based on the view that graduates, as “the beneficiaries of higher education”, should cover the bulk of the costs (this view seems not to have been changed in light of the most recent BIS research which estimates that the public benefit in terms of higher tax returns will exceed the private benefit in terms of higher wages – a curious oversight for an advocate of “evidence-based policy”). By contrast to the Coalition’s view, Robbins believed that “the social advantages of investment in higher education may vastly exceed the commercial return”, which underpinned the assumption that Government should fund higher education. Robbins’ belief was that “the return on education… is not something that can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings”, and that doing so risked “being seriously misleading”.

Although the Robbins report took a clear stance on who primarily benefitted from higher education, it took a more nuanced stance on loans. It did not fully oppose loans to students to fund higher education but instead said that the case for and against a system of loans was “very evenly balanced”, advocating experimentation with loans in due course. The report explicitly opposed “those who urge the raising of fees until they cover, if not all, at least a large percentage of the costs of the various institutions concerned.” However, Robbins, a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, later shifted his approach and wrote in favour of an income-contingent loan system, saying it was a “matter of regret” that he did not appreciate the benefits of such a system at the time that the report was written. While such a system remained theoretical, it might be fair to note he never lived to see the problems of implementing such a system in practice.

The Robbins report opened up universities to women. One reason Robbins had opposed introducing a loans system was his fear that they would prevent women from going to university. The report suggested that men might consider such accumulated debt as a “negative dowry” and refuse to marry indebted female graduates. While such language seems outdated, the substance seems reasonable on its own terms: London Economics have estimated that 70-80% of women will never pay off their loan in full from loans under the new system. As it was, the Robbins report opposed loans and so female participation in HE increased from being outnumbered 3:1 in 61-62 to the slight majority they have in today’s system.


On the wider points of marketization and underpinning philosophy, Willetts surely cannot credibly claim to be a natural heir to Robbins. Robbins did not mention for-profit higher education or want universities to change their legal status, instead placing a far greater importance on autonomy. Robbins did not treat higher education as an export service (although he supported cutting subsidies for overseas students and he opposed setting higher fees for non-UK students). Robbins also rejected the idea that the existence of university departments should be determined solely by student demand, instead insisting that “it is the duty of universities… to ensure that subjects that are important but that do not attract great numbers of students are adequately studied”.

Robbins also argued that co-ordination was preferred to competition on the basis that it was “unlikely that separate considerations by independent institutions of their own affairs in their own circumstances will always result in a pattern that is comprehensive and appropriate in relation to the needs of society and the demands of the national economy.” By contrast, contemporary policy is based on the assumption that competition will drive up quality. More broadly, Robbins’ system was one more clearly rooted in a trust in academics as opposed to the mixture of state regulation and market mechanisms that are more dominant today. Robbins did not speak of the student as the consumer but as the partner of the academic.

That is not to say that Robbins did not offer up scope for student choice. By contrast, the Robbins committee had had serious doubts about manpower planning and so allowed student choice to shape the system. Layard, King & Moser have written that the committee wanted 2/3 of extra places to be in science and technology. The percentage of arts students as a percentage of the total student population soared from 40% in 61-62 to 44% to 66-67. In fact, present policy is instead more clearly utilitarian, saying that the higher education system “should evolve in response to demand from students and employers, reflecting particularly the wider needs of the economy”. Perhaps the present reforms have simply extended students the cost of being a consumer without any of the extra choice.

The more things change…

Interestingly, on many issues of higher education policy, nothing has substantially changed since the report was published. In a familiar message, Robbins opposed “freezing of institutions into established hierarchies”, instead supporting “recognition and encouragement of excellence wherever it exists”. Robbins also supported “a higher proportion of students should receive a broader education for their first degrees”. The report even called for schools and institutions to “consider how better information can be made available to young people and their parents about the courses available in higher education”.

Robbins warned, “in modern societies the skills and versatilities required are increasingly those conferred by higher education”. Today we still talk about the importance of transferable skills in a knowledge economy.

The idea that higher education was economically vital was used by Robbins to advocate the expansion of publicly funded universities just as the present Government justifies its own reforms in the same terms. Robbins argued that, without reform of higher education, “there is little hope of this densely populated island maintaining an adequate position in the fiercely competitive world of the future.” In other words, higher education is central to winning the ‘global race’. Where have we heard that recently?

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