Robbins Report on higher education – Fifty years on

By Peter Scott, trustee of CDBU and Professor of Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education

Fifty years ago this autumn the Robbins report on higher education in the United Kingdom was published. It was, and still is, the greatest report on higher education – by some way.

It stands in a kind of grand Apostolic succession from the 19th century ‘blue books’, those pioneering enquiries into social conditions undertaken in Victorian Britain which have a just claim to being regarded as the founding texts of empirical social science – and, incidentally, provided much of the raw material out of which Karl Marx fashioned Capital during long hours in the British Museum Reading Room.

The report led by Lord Lionel Robbins also stands comparison with other fundamental interventions in the development of higher education in other countries in the 1960s. The California ‘Master Plan’ and Edgar Faure’s reconstruction of universities in France come to mind.

When Robbins was published the UK had an elite system dominated by universities, in particular by Oxford and Cambridge and the civic universities founded in the 19th century, although the so-called ‘red bricks’ established between the two world wars and the first wave of ‘new universities’ were emerging fast. There were only a quarter of a million students.

Half a century later the UK system is unambiguously a mass system enrolling more than 2.5 million students. It is one of Europe’s big four that have broken the two-million barrier, the others being France, Germany and (surprisingly perhaps) Poland.

The system is still dominated by multi-faculty universities, as Robbins had foreseen. What the committee could never have foreseen is the sheer variety of these universities, which are quite unlike those of 50 years ago. There are many more of them, including the former polytechnics ‘promoted’ a generation ago. Yet Robbins provided the catalyst for this transformation.

Once a committee of the ‘great and good’ presided over by Keynes’ great liberal (we would probably say neo-liberal) rival as an economist had endorsed the need for university expansion, the cries of ‘more means worse’ died away.

Shortly before he died I interviewed Robbins and asked why he, a member of the recently discovered ‘establishment’ and a right-wing economist into the bargain, had nevertheless endorsed such a progressive, even rather leftist, project.

He replied by saying he had been most influenced by a remark of another London School of Economics titan, RH Tawney, that “you could never overestimate how much America had benefited from the fact that so many of her people had had at least the smell of a higher education”.

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Shaping higher education fifty years after Robbins

Podcasts of the conference sessions from ‘Shaping higher education fifty years after Robbins’ that took place on 22 October 2013 at LSE, are now online including the conference programme and the speakers’ powerpoint presentations, available here. A podcast and video of the final public session ‘Shaping higher education fifty years after Robbins: What views to the future’ chaired by LSE Director Professor Craig Calhoun, with Bahram Bekhradnia, Rajay Naik and David Willetts MP, is also online at the link here.

J. M. Coetzee: Universities head for extinction

Novelist and academic JM Coetzee’s foreword to University of Cape Town fellow Professor John Higgins’s new book, taken from the Mail & Guardian

Thank you for letting me see your essays on academic freedom in South Africa. The general question you address – “Is a university still a university when it loses its academic autonomy?” – seems to me of the utmost importance to the future of higher education in South Africa.

Hardly less important is the junior cousin of that question, namely: “Is a university without a proper faculty of humanities (or faculty of humanities and social sciences) still a university?”

As you point out, the policy on academic autonomy followed by the ANC government is troublingly close to the policy followed by the old National Party government: universities may retain their autonomy as long as the terms of their autonomy can be defined by the state.

The National Party had a conception of the state, and the role played by education within the state, to which such tenets of British liberal faith as academic freedom were simply alien. The indifference of the ANC to academic freedom has less of a philosophical basis, and may simply come out of a defensive reluctance to sanction sites of power over which it has no control.

But South African universities are by no means in a unique position. All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.

You argue – cogently – that allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and short­sighted policy: indispensable to a democratic society – indeed, to a vigorous national economy – is a critically literate citizenry competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment. Without the ability to reflect on ourselves, you argue, we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis. And only the neglected humanities can provide a training in such critical literacy.

I hope that your book will be high on the reading list of those politicians busy reshaping higher ­education in the light of national priorities, as well as of those university administrators to whom the traditional humanities have become alien ground. I hope that, having read and digested what you have to say, those politicians and administrators will undergo a change of heart. But alas, I do not believe that your hopes and mine have much chance of being realised.

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The managerial humanities: or, why the digital humanities don’t exist

Daniel  Allington is a lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics at the Open University. The piece below is taken from his blog:

As we all know, the digital humanities are the next big thing. A couple of years ago, I gave a presentation at a digital humanities colloquium, explaining what I saw as the major reasons for this (Allington, 2011). We are working within an economic system in which owners of capital (funders) invest in research speculatively purchased in advance from the owners of the means of knowledge production (universities), with permanent employees of the latter (what North Americans call ‘faculty’) playing the role of brokers between the two (both as writers and as reviewers of grant applications) and managing the precariously-employed sellers of labour (junior academics and support staff on temporary contracts) who actually get things done. Humanities research is traditionally cheap, which is bad from at least two points of view: funders want to save money by administering fewer, larger, grants, while universities want to see every department generating research income on a par with that pulled in by STEM centres. The digital humanities come to the rescue by being so conveniently expensive: they appear not merely to profit from but to require such costly things as computer hardware, server space, and specialised technical support staff who – in a further benefit from the point of view of the ethically-indifferent university – can be employed on fixed-term contracts, instantly disposed of when the period of funding comes to an end, and almost as instantly replaced once the next grant is landed. It didn’t have to be like this: computers can as easily reduce as increase the size of a research project. In the funding game, however, the goal is not quality, nor even efficiency, but only bigger and bigger contracts. This is the context within which the digital humanities have fashioned themselves from their less tiresomely glamorous predecessor, ‘humanities computing’.

I had entitled my paper ‘Funded research: help or hindrance for the (digital) humanities?’, and I stood up to deliver it in full expectation of a fight: I knew that the event had been organised in order to promote the host institution as a recipient of research funding, and that there were serial large-grant holders in attendance. But a fight was not forthcoming. The audience laughed in the right places, and – once I had said my piece – responded not in outrage but in sad agreement. One respondent seemed to want me to take my critique further, asking whether I thought that this restructuring of the research process was leading to greater conservatism in the research actually produced (I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t, but my primary concern was elsewhere). To my further surprise, I even got a positive write-up in an article that several other members of the audience (including the event’s academic organisers) published the following year (Barker et al, 2012, pp. 188-189). Evidently, my analysis was less controversial than I had thought. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.

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Nobody wants their research impact to be graded ‘considerable’ in the REF

For the research excellence framework, academics now have to think hard about the effect of their work outside academia, says Jonathan Wolff, professor of philosophy at UCL. 

Not long left now. Just a few more weeks and someone in each university around the country will press the button and that will be that. No more tinkering, no more polishing, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) documents will be uploaded into the funding council’s groaning server and, short of interfering with the jury, there is nothing we can do until we hear the result in a year’s time.

For the last few years most academics have been living and breathing the REF, agonising about how best to boast about the “reach and significance” of their work or their creation and nurture of “cultural capital”, not to mention their love-in with academic, cultural and commercial partners near and far.

For those lucky enough not to know what I am blithering on about, let me explain. The REF is the latest in a long line of punishments we in the university sector have inflicted on ourselves. This one assesses the comparative quality of our research in order to drizzle money on those judged to be best.

The core part of the submission, thankfully, is our publications. Most researchers must designate four items published between 2008 and 2013. Straightforward enough. Well, no.

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University research ‘being stifled by red tape’ – Letters to the Editor

Professor Sir Fergus Millar’s letter to the editor of the Times. ‘I am not Joking when I say that a physics lecturer called Einstein, who Just thought about the Universe, would risk being sacked because he brought in no grants.’

Times, The (London, England) – Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sir, The Minister for the Universities, David Willetts, has finally grasped the most obvious fact about their evolution over the past three decades: the ever-increasing emphasis on research at the expense of teaching (report, Oct 21). What he has not grasped, however, is that this extremely damaging change, which has serious social and economic implications, has been entirely driven by government policies. These include the removal of tenure, so that individuals are faced with toeing whatever the current line is or losing their jobs. Equally fundamental is the massive shift, two decades ago, from direct funding to funding granted for specific research projects. The effect is that the overheads which come with research grants are fundamental to the finances of departments and whole universities.

In consequence, in the modern British university, it is not that funding is sought in order to carry out research, but that research projects are formulated in order to get funding. I am not joking when I say that a physics lecturer called Einstein, who Just thought about the Universe, would risk being sacked because he brought in no grants.

One university was recently reported as intending to close its music department because its research income was insufficient. Others give a whole term’s leave for putting together an application for a research grant. So much for the education, or the wider culture, of students.

Worse still, the Research Assessment Exercise, or now “Research Excellence Framework” (REF) works on very short cycles.

The result is to render serious, longterm research, whose results are by definition uncertain, impossible. If you can confidently predict your results in five years’ time (and, as now required, also predict the “impact”), then it is not research.

Worse still, the lecturer whose fulfilment comes from teaching, or from seeing to student welfare, or the running of the department or the exams, now risks, at best, being publicly humiliated as “non-researchactive” or “non-REF-referable”, and at worst being dismissed.

The present system is profoundly damaging, not only to teaching but to research itself.