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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