When Lionel Robbins published the report of his committee on higher education in the United Kingdom in October 1963, higher education in the UK was an elite system, run by and for a small proportion (less than five per cent, predominantly male) of the population, many of whom were fiercely resistant to the thought that expansion might be either feasible or desirable, for reasons which appear now to amount to little more than a combination of class spite, snobbery and chauvinism.
While that was already beginning to change, thanks to a range of social and economic pressures that were slowly teasing open the doors of the academy (there were 31 universities at time of publication, including seven which had been founded within the previous five years), the Robbins report provided a compelling rationale for the rapid expansion of the system, arguing that higher education courses ‘should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’ (the ‘Robbins principle’). Its main recommendations, including the proposal that ‘colleges of advanced technology’ be awarded university status, were accepted by the Conservative government of the day within 24 hours of publication and the further expansion of the university system began almost immediately.
As Lord Moser, one of the few surviving members of Lord Robbins’ team, recalls, the report ‘changed the whole tone of public discussion on higher education’. Critically, it demolished the contention that there was a strictly limited ‘pool of ability’ at the level of higher study, arguing instead that there was a large pool of untapped talent which the country could not afford to ignore. Robbins recognised that this was an economic issue, of course, but his view of the purposes and potential benefits of higher education was much broader than that. He set out four objectives for a ‘properly balanced system’: ‘instruction in skills’; the promotion of ‘the general powers of the mind’ so as to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’; to maintain research in balance with teaching so that teaching is not separate from ‘the search for truth’; and to transmit ‘a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. The return on education, he argued, was ‘not something that can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. Higher education was an important public good which should be supported largely through the public purse.
Robbins also recognised the importance of ‘second chance’ education and saw that the prevailing model of full-time residential education would not suit everyone. He urged that greater provision be made for mature students, recommending the ‘rapid development’ of courses for adults, and encouraging universities to admit ‘non-standard’ students. Higher education, the report said, ‘is not a once-for-all process. As the pace of discovery quickens it will become increasingly important for practitioners in many fields to take courses at intervals to bring them up to date … there are far too few students taking refresher courses and courses of further training’. It was particularly important, it continued, that such courses were made available for women returning to work after raising children and that these women were financially supported in their studies. He appreciated that full-time study would not necessarily be the right mode for delivery for this group.
The report also gave recognition to the important role of liberal adult education in giving students without advanced qualifications an opportunity to engage in higher study. It called for the further development of full-time courses for adults in residential colleges, such as Coleg Harlech and Ruskin College, and recommended that ‘consideration should be given to assisting them in the immediate future by capital grants and also by enabling suitable entrants to obtain adequate financial support for their studies’. Highlighting the activities of extra-mural departments, the Workers’ Educational Association and local authorities in providing adult education, the report noted that demand existed ‘on a large scale’ and that there was ‘clearly much scope for further development, in conjunction with the television services, for example, and other new media of communication. We hope that the universities and their partners will cooperate in this task. If this country is to maintain its proud record [in contributing to ‘the general education of the community’], further support for this kind of study will be needed in the future’.
Robbins didn’t see mature study merely as a nice-to-have but, rather, as an essential part of a university system within which everyone with the ability to study has the opportunity to do so. It is also clear that Robbins is not arguing for new types of institution to cater for these ‘non-standard’ students. The needs of the future, the report says, ‘should be met by developing present types of institution’ in such a way that ‘irrational distinctions’ and ‘rigid barriers between institutions’ are not perpetuated. While ‘it is inevitable that some institutions will be more eminent than others’, it says, ‘[t]here should be no freezing of institutions into established hierarchies; on the contrary there should be recognition and encouragement of excellence wherever it exists and wherever it appears’. Robbins’ vision allows for difference in function, where difference rests on ‘excellence in the discharge of functions’, but not for rigid differences in status. Equally, he did not look to different kinds of institution to cater for different kinds of student but, rather, expected that, as the system expanded, mature and other ‘non-standard’ students would become part of the institutional life of every university.
So, what has been the long-term impact of the Robbins report on widening participation, particularly for mature students? The Robbins principle that higher education should be available to all who are qualified and wish to study has underpinned developments in widening participation and lifelong learning, including the expansion of higher education opportunities to students who do not fit the traditional profile of 18 or 19 year old school leavers. There has been a huge expansion in total student numbers. There are now around 2.5 million students in the UK compared to a quarter of a million when Robbins published his report. By 2009 mature students (those aged 21 or over) represented almost a third of the first-year undergraduate population. At the same time there was a comparable growth in the numbers of part-time students, the vast majority of whom are classed as mature. Robbins was a catalyst for much of this change.
Yet, in some respects, I suspect the nature of the change would have disappointed Robbins and his committee. Although most institutions now welcome mature and part-time students it is clear that they are more welcome in some than in others. Much of the growth in numbers has been thanks to ‘new’ universities, including the former polytechnics whose foundation, in the mid-sixties, introduced into the system the sort of binary division Robbins argued against. The division survived the merging of polytechnics into the university sector in 1992 (we now have ‘pre-’ and ‘post-92’ institutions). Although these institutions have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of widening participation and opening up opportunities, for mature and part-time students in particular, there remains, in the eyes of the media, at least, and perhaps the public too, an impression that these institutions offer second-class higher education. At the same time, the innovation shown in these institutions has obscured the fact that many ‘elite’ institutions have remained stubbornly resistant to change, with a corresponding failure to widen participation to the extent of newer institutions, in which mature students (and other under-represented groups) have remained concentrated. For many of these older institutions more has not necessarily meant different, and they remain more or less rooted in the notion of universities as residential finishing schools for already privileged youngsters.
After 50 years, Robbins’ vision remains compelling. Universities minister David Willetts has made much of the continuity between the Robbins report and his own government’s vision for higher education. Certainly, the loans system devised and introduced by the coalition makes serious efforts to ensure that higher education remains accessible to all who have the talent, irrespective of ability to pay, despite the huge escalation in fees. The extension of loans to part-time students for the first time would also have pleased Robbins, particularly given his concern about women’s access to higher education. However, while there is some continuity, there are also large differences, which are more fundamental. Critically, Robbins thought very differently about the purposes and benefits of higher education. The coalition view of the benefits of university has narrowed beyond recognition to a truly grim utilitarian calculation based on individual earnings. Robbins, on the other hand, takes a much broader view, acknowledging the role of universities in creating rounded, cultivated individuals capable of promoting ‘common standards of citizenship’.
Mr Willetts notes that the Robbins committee considered the introduction of loans and that, in later life, Robbins came to regret the decision not to do so. This suggests common ground but, again, the differences are profound, and instructive. While the committee considered loans it also raised concerns that fear of debt would be a significant disincentive to students from non-traditional groups. And while Robbins may have come to think differently about loans in some respects, it is clear that he was never entertaining the possibility of loans to cover the full cost of a degree. This is because Robbins explicitly rejects the idea that the benefits of education ‘can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. The wider benefits to society are of much greater importance; a recognition that underpins Robbins’ notion of higher education as an important public good, deserving of public support. He saw that the whole of society benefits from an educated citizenry capable not only of contributing to the economy but of playing a full part in civic life. It was likely that the ‘social advantages’ of investing in education greatly out-weighed the commercial ones, he argued.
A difference in approach is reflected also in the dramatic decline in part-time and mature student numbers – something which would have greatly dismayed Robbins who was acutely aware of the importance of this sort of provision both to the economy and to efforts to widen participation (particularly to women seeking to return to education after having children). Full-time mature student applications have fallen by more than 18,000 (a 14 per cent decline) since the trebling of tuition fees and the introduction of the new loans system. At the same time, part-time student numbers have collapsed, by 40 per cent, according to HEFCE figures. These shocking numbers would, I think, have appalled Robbins, but they may not have surprised him. In the section of his report on adult education, he highlights the need for ‘adequate financial support’ for mature students. Later, in considering the possible impact of a system of loans, he recognises that fear of debt can produce ‘undesirable disincentive effects’. He also observes that any drop in recruitment to higher education by those with the talent for it (but not the resources to fund it) is not only a private loss to the individual but a ‘social loss’.
It is clear, though we seem curiously reluctant to say so, that higher fees are having a significant negative impact on the recruitment of mature students, particularly those who would prefer to study part-time. There is a strong case, I think, bearing in mind the important public and economic good part-time study represents, for government to provide some sort of subsidy to enable institutions to lower costs for part-time courses, which are typically more expensive and time-consuming to run. Getting rid of the ‘ELQ rule’, which denies access to loans to students studying for a second degree (and played a big part in decimating university lifelong learning under the last government), would also be a positive move, opening up more opportunities to the kinds of adult student Robbins was particularly concerned about and lending meaningful support to his conviction that education is not a ‘once-for-all process’. Despite government efforts to ameliorate some of these problems (such as the very welcome partial relaxation of the ELQ rule), the continuing decline in mature and part-time student numbers is extremely bad news for social mobility and there remains a serious risk that the loans system will ultimately result in a two-tier system, with less-advantaged ‘non-standard’ students obliged to opt for the low-cost, ‘second-class’ model, while the elite institutions remain the preserve of the already privileged. This, I imagine, would be just about the last thing Robbins would have wanted.