David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The 2013 Robbins Revisited report (published by the Social Market Foundation) was undoubtedly one of the most important documents written by David Willetts in the early 2010s.

It has regularly been compared to the Students at the Heart of the System white paper (2011), and The Pinch (2010). But ten years on, we don’t often talk about it.

The pamphlet was an expansionist document that foresaw a much larger higher education sector in England, very much in line with government policy at the time – which, given that David Willetts was universities minister when it was published, is perhaps unsurprising.

As the huge expansion of higher education outlined in the report largely occurred, it is tempting to assume that current government higher education policy must have followed the Willetts blueprint. But that would be wrong.

The expanding man

A variety of methodological approaches, applied by Willetts drawing on the work of Robbins (based on demographics, a presumed levelling out of social class differences, and demand) put the number of estimated UK domiciled higher education entrants in 2035 somewhere between 410,000 and 460,000 – some 200,000 higher than in 2011-12. As of 2022-23, UCAS reports that there were some 489,360 UK undergraduate enrolments – substantially above Willetts’ estimates (and down on a peak of 492,000 in 2021).

The Robbins report was a long-term plan for growth. It famously asked for more universities to house this expected growth, but got only one (the University of Stirling). It did, however, also imply that more resources would be needed to support an expansion of numbers in existing universities and largely got them over the medium term.

The plans under development in 2013 also asked for more universities – rather than the Robbins era approach (dropping them from the sky onto greenfield sites) it anticipated that an as-yet-unseen wave of private provision would fill the gap more cheaply. Reader, it did not.

The resource question had been tackled by the Browne review, which was implemented in part by the coalition government in the form of the £9,000 undergraduate fee cap. This offered an immediate boost to providers at the expense of seeing any further inflationary rises manifest as an increase in fees. This was sold, at the time, as a generational settlement offering a sustainable future for the sector – it turned out to be a fiscal illusion.

It seems like only yesterday

The sheer cost of the Robbins recommendations was a huge factor in contemporary debates in the university system. Lord Taylor set out the costs implicit in expansion when the report was debated in the House of Lords:

To meet [the] need means change in our well-established ways; change on a huge and unprecedented scale; and such change is always painful to many of us. Robbins is bound to hurt. No one can escape from the unpleasantness of over-large classes in the universities at the start; from the appalling difficulties of housing these young people; from some loss of time and leisure for research in the next five years. But unless we face these changes we must bang the doors of our universities in many young and eager faces. Surely, this is a challenge to which we must respond in a determination to give them at least as good an opportunity as we had, or as their brothers and sisters had only five years ago.

It has become fashionable to paint any suggestion that those costs are not currently being met as the slamming of that metaphorical door. Instead, we face the “unpleasantness of over-large classes” and the “appalling difficulties of housing these young people” – a state of affairs that slams more doors, and harder, than we can reckon.

You say it’s a crazy scheme

In 2013 Willetts noted that Robbins avoided tackling the subject of who pays for university in any great detail (though he did offer quite specific thinking about order-of-magnitude changes to government capital and recurrent spending, suggesting that he had some idea) – and that the parameters of that system had already been drawn by the 1960 Anderson report. But he moves swiftly on from this to note submissions from “a number of economists” who chose to tackle an issue outside of Robbins’ remit – graduate contributions, grants, and loans.

These, to be clear, were to cover student maintenance costs. Though Robbins deals briefly with the idea of fee loans, he dismisses them on economic grounds, though Willetts does his best to gloss over this in noting the way his then-current ideas on finance were presented closely matched these out-of-scope submissions in the DVD extras of the Robbins report. Dearing was the first to propose a graduate contribution to fees, in 1997 – but he imagined a contribution alongside a separate and growing stream of government funding that has never materialised.

Robbins is able to be very clear on the perils of not investing in higher education:

But, in general, it is not seriously open to doubt that if in any country educational investment in general and investment in higher education in particular falls appreciably behind what is being undertaken elsewhere, then, in the long run, general earning power is liable to be affected far beyond anything that may have been foregone in the way of pecuniary return on investment in the individuals concerned.

And is equally withering on institutional finance, including universities’ own (then current) approach to raising fees:

[T]here has been a failure to raise fees commensurately with the general decline in the value of money. Whereas the cost of living in general has trebled since 1938, university fees have on average only risen by three quarters

Further noting that, under other circumstances:

it is highly probable that the level of fees rather than broad questions of educational policy would become the focus of public discussion; and if this were so the problem of preserving academic freedom would present itself in a new form

In 2013 Willetts committed, in this spirit, to ensuring that “taxpayers still pay 40 per cent of the cost of degrees” – currently this is projected to be nearer 28 per cent, and will be less than 25 per cent when Plan 5 is implemented.

Ready to cross that fine line

Perhaps this situation could be helped by moving universities into a department that better suited the unique status of higher education – Robbins initially recommended a Department of Arts and Sciences, which became instead the Department of Education and Science. Willets was proud to note that (from the perspective of 2013) “in the Business Department [universities] are part of a culture which understands science is to be supported not directed.”

Other parts of the report have a curiously modern echo: I can’t conclude without observing how earnestly Willetts bent Robbins’ throwaway comment on television to suit the then-current mania for massive open online courses (MOOCs), and the airy way in which Willetts dismisses the Robbins era concern over early specialisation because “evidence shows more students are doing a wider range of A-levels.” Let’s break that one to Rishi Sunak gently.

The landscape of higher education policy is riven with reports and perspectives that have, at best, influenced the path that the sector has taken. As attractive as the Great Men theory of history may be, change is brought about by odd bursts of sustained government energy and enthusiasm and often in a piecemeal fashion – as in higher education policy during the last decade.

Robbins itself was a landmark, but it is also a mess. There’s a lot more in there than is usually discussed, enough so you can argue pretty much any position from it by carefully selecting from the text and the surrounding artefacts. The scope of the report was enormous, the actual impact (in every other way than a preparation for an aspirational and demographic boom) markedly less so

Another Robbins – another report with that level of power and recognition – is unlikely. But other interpretations will arise. It does feel as if the ten years that separate Willetts’ pamphlet from today have seen the same arguments and the same lingering issues repeated again and again. Maybe it is time, after all, for the return of the expert review.

One response to “Robbins Revisited, revisited

  1. Interesting piece about a paper I helped work on back in the day, but you say:

    ‘he [Willetts] moves swiftly on from this to note submissions [to the Robbins Committee] from “a number of economists” who chose to tackle an issue outside of Robbins’ remit – graduate contributions, grants, and loans.

    ‘These, to be clear, were to cover student maintenance costs.’

    I would draw people’s attention to the most famous of these submissions, the ones by Peacock / Wiseman and Prest. They were not only about student maintenance. They envisaged higher fees than those then in place (which the Robbins Report called for too), and the economists’ submissions also proposed generous loan schemes to pay for the costs of higher education.

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