Robbins (1963)

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1963 Robbins Report (text)

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The Robbins Report (1963)
Higher Education
Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins

London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1963
Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.


Press cuttings from The Times

Leader, 25 April 1966

LORD ROBBINS'S book, The University in the Modern World, a collection of his speeches and papers, is a little like the old soldier showing his scars. The famous report of his committee on higher education has been mauled by government decisions made against its advice. He may find rueful satisfaction now that one of the main departures from his recommendations, the decision to lump universities, schools, the arts, and scientific research under one Minister, is not working out well in the opinion of many interests which feel neglected.

Some of his other views are more open to question. His book, like the report, is marked throughout by the conviction that educational institutions should be as equal as possible. In his statement to the Franks committee he notes that the excellences and advantages of the ancient universities are 'the focus of much envy and ill-feeling'. In suggesting the end of open scholarships, he writes that 'it is not unmitigatedly good that all or most of the cleverest boys and girls should be concentrated in two centres'. His severest strictures are kept for the Labour Government's Secretary of State, Mr Crosland, who divided higher education into two separate parts, the autonomous university sphere and the other where colleges of education and technical colleges remain under public control. Lord Robbins does not understand how 'a government which is pledged to abolish artificial hierarchy and invidious distinction in the schools, should be actively engaged in preventing the elimination of artificial hierarchies and invidious distinctions in higher education'.

As an economist, he should understand. It would be easy enough to be free with the title of university, giving it to all claimants which could make some show of merit, but it is less easy to find the money to create the quality which ought to be the mark of a university. There is a particular danger in the egalitarian approach to institutions of higher education in a country like Britain where most of the money for them comes from a single source. In America, rich states like California and Texas will compete with the private benefactors of Harvard and Yale in lavishness of academic spending. There is no question of fairness or equality; they look after their own. In Britain, there is one paymaster only and, without acceptance by the Government and without the University Grants Committee of hierarchy and distinctions, universities which are of international standing now are unlikely to remain so in the future. No nation can maintain more than a handful of Harvards and Berkeleys. They are immensely expensive. Only under a system where universities are restricted in number and then treated unequally can some institutions of international standing continue to exist.

Letters, 26 April 1966


Sir, Argument with hostile reviewers is seldom advisable but the mere juxtaposition of quotations sometimes may be; and I think your leader on my The University in the Modern World is a case in point.

In this article, you quote my evidence to the Franks Committee to the effect that 'the excellences and advantages of the ancient universities are "the focus of much envy and ill-feeling"'; and this becomes the leit motiv of a disquisition on my (highly misguided) egalitarianism.

You do not, however, quote the next paragraphs of that evidence in which I urge that 'to blame Oxford and Cambridge ... is to miss the target altogether', and cite the following sentences[*] from the Report on Higher Education:

'It must be recognized that it is inevitable that some institutions will be more eminent than others. It is in the nature of things that talent should attract talent and that where famous intellectual exploits take place, there should develop some concentration of staff and students especially interested in the subjects concerned. Moreover, such concentrations are not only probable but also desirable. A mutual stimulation of speculation and of scholarly standards is a precondition of much that is most valuable in higher education. It is therefore unavoidable that in this respect there should be some differences in achievement and reputation as between institutions.'
In reproducing this passage in my evidence, I remarked that critics of the position of the Report on Higher Education often found it convenient to overlook it, in spite of its prominence. I observe with a certain grim amusement that you, as might well be expected, exemplify this rule.

Yours faithfully,

House of Lords, April 25.

[*The quotation in Lord Robbins's letter is from chapter 2, page 9, paragraph 37.]

Article from The Economist 5 April 1969

[page 13]

Now, after Robbins

Britain's universities, new and old, are ahead of Lord Robbins's expansion target, and the post-school age group is declining. But it is now high time to be planning higher education for 1980

For the past five years, British universities have been occupied with an emergency expansion. In 1963 the government accepted the conclusion of the Robbins report of that year, that the number of students at universities should just about double in the following decade. The reasons were clear enough: Britain was lagging behind in the developed countries' scramble to expand higher education, and in the mid-1960s the bulge of post-war babies would become a bulge of 18-year-olds. By nearly doubling the number of universities, as well as expanding existing ones, the country has succeeded in actually getting ahead of the Robbins target. The total number of students at university is now about 212,000; the number of 18-year-olds is now falling each year; and the Government has had to take a jaundiced look at all its expenditure. It is hardly surprising that a fervent cost-consciousness has crept into the debate on the next move in the development of higher education.

For this university quinquennium provides a breathing space in only the most limited sense. Universities will for a while find it easy to increase their share of the relevant age-group, even at the slow rate of expansion planned for the next few years. Similarly, the sometimes savage cuts made by local authorities in further education, because of government restrictions, will do less harm now than years before or later. But the numbers in this age group will again reach the mid-1960s peak by 1980. The total demand in the decade after that obviously depends very much on whether the birth rate continues to fall. But it is quite certain that the proportion of each age group wanting some kind of education after leaving school will continue to increase, despite the rise in the school-leaving age that is planned for 1972-73. The number of students at universities is still determined by the number of available places, since universities have to turn away about half of all applicants each year - though a considerable proportion fail to get the necessary A levels, and about 1,000 places go unfilled in science faculties because of the shortage of qualified candidates. But further education colleges are more elastic, and of course there has been no comparable competition for places, at least during the past few years. That this has

[page 14]

been the fastest growing sector of education, despite an increasing tendency to stay on at school after 15, is a real indication of the continued, rapidly rising demand for higher education.

Following the Robbins report, it was accepted as government policy, that, long-term, the total demand for higher education should be met. But neither Robbins nor the government accepted that the demand for university places, by candidates with the basic qualifications, should be met within the university sector alone; though the metamorphosis of the colleges of advanced technology into universities was a limited admission that this should be so. The Robbins report guessed that 560,000 places would be required by 1980, of which about 350,000 should be provided in universities. This would mean that universities would have to do better than repeat the total expansion, though not the rate of expansion, of the past five years over the next decade. It would still not mean that they could take all qualified candidates: for England and Wales alone, the Department of Education's estimate is that the number of school leavers with two or more A levels will have increased to 124,000 by 1980, or from 10 to 15 per cent. The immediate expansion programme for universities, though still ahead of Robbins's projections in total, is for an increase to only between 220,000 and 225,000 students by 1973-74. There is a real and understandable doubt whether any government will be prepared to embark on a large expansion programme during the following quinquennium without there being a considerable modification of the present university system.

The alternative is, of course, to expand the amount of degree level work done at colleges of further education. The further education system was beheaded by the removal of the colleges of advanced technology to the university sector. This makes cost comparisons difficult. At present about 200,000 students attend full-time courses at further education colleges, but not all of these are doing 'advanced' work - the definition of which is that the final exam should at least be harder than A level. Over 100,000 students, in 1967-68, were taking advanced courses, but only about half were studying full-time. These students were dispersed among a large number of colleges which also hold part-time, evening and low-level courses, which of course contribute to the high student-staff ratios. The new polytechnics were designed to provide most advanced courses, and to hive off some of their low-level courses to other colleges. But only three of the 30 colleges and groups of colleges intended as such - Hatfield, Sheffield and Sunderland - have started work as polytechnics. The first impression is that their costs are not substantially lower, on certain assumptions, than those for university teaching.

It would be surprising if they were. The differences in costs between universities and further education colleges are as much self-imposed as essential. The three, expensive elements of the present university system which have come under fire are the costs of student support, the low student-staff ratio, and the policy of national recruitment. The first cost applies to all levels of full-time further education for which the local authorities are prepared to give student grants. For all students, the total cost is currently over 100 million a year. But to replace grants by student loans would of course discriminate against girls and poor students, who would be less ready to face the prospect of repayment. There is still no easy answer to this difficulty while Britain is not geared to the provision of reasonably paid vacation jobs - in the way that government and industry are in the United States.

But the low student-staff ratios are the inevitable result of lumping teaching and research institutions under one roof. When fewer than 4 per cent of young people attended universities, this led to some saving of money and resources. (It naturally made things more interesting for the teachers.) Since this proportion has nearly doubled in the past decade or so, and is likely to pass the 10 per cent mark in the foreseeable future, these savings no longer apply. About one-third of university costs can be attributed to research. If higher education is to undergo another large expansion, either the proportion of dons' time that is devoted to research must decrease, or more university-level work must be provided elsewhere.

Again, to cut costs either universities must recruit more of their entrants from surrounding areas, or more degree courses must be provided at colleges which do recruit locally. The secretary of the association of local education committees, Sir William Alexander, has pointed out that the proportion of the age-group at university will soon be the same as the proportion of children at grammar schools a couple of decades ago, and no one supposed that the grammar schools should recruit nationally. The parallel is not quite fair, and there are advantages to be gained from specialisation between universities. Many new universities do not even try to cover all subjects. But this advantage is greater for postgraduate and research programmes, and, as undergraduate courses become more general, it will be even less for them. A policy of local recruitment could only be carried out on a very limited scale indeed while there is such pressure on places, and such varied pressure on different universities. But a limited policy would be a worthwhile way of trying to reduce the costs of large-scale higher education, if the universities are to cope with nearly all of the expansion of degree-level courses.

The progress of the colleges of advanced technology has shown that if the further education sector is not to consist of only very low-level colleges and those striving to become universities, the polytechnics must not merely become imitations of universities. They should provide degree-level courses for those without the time to follow a full-time course, and for a limited overflow from universities. But they must provide lower-level courses of all kinds, to preserve their separate character. They must provide, prestige-wise and educationally, the focus for the huge expansion in the non-degree level and demand for further education that is expected. This demand is likely to increase even faster than the demand for university places, and it cannot be emphasised too often that it is equally important. A frequent opinion is that the Robbins overall guess of 560,000 by 1980 should be upped to 750,000. The advanced-level work, outside universities, will show the greatest increase once the school leaving age is raised; a quarter of school leavers are expected to have at least five O levels by 1980. This work must be concentrated in polytechnics. It is right that, despite the fact that they are essentially local - and local authority - colleges, they should form their own association to match the committee of vice-chancellors, and that the local authorities concerned should have meetings akin to those of the University Grants Committee. The Department of Education is now reported to be considering this. It is unlikely that their costs, for full-time courses of a reasonable high level, will be much less than the costs of university teaching could be. But this is not an argument that the polytechnic should be transferred to the university sector, or that they should try to hold courses that are best suited to universities. It is an argument that both groups of institutions should try to keep their costs down, by avoiding duplication with universities on the one hand, and by recognising, on the other, that a parallel increase in non-teaching work is not necessarily implied by a commitment to increase the number of university students.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of The Economist.