This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Robbins report, or the 1963 Report of the Committee on Higher Education as it’s never called, and we’ll be marking it with a one-day conference at the Institute on 24 October. It’s an anniversary worth celebrating.
From today’s vantage point, we can see Robbins as an early indicator that higher education was moving from the periphery towards the centre of British national life –changing from picturesque adjunct to essential component. UK university student numbers had grown from 20,000 at the start of the last century to 118,000 when Robbins reported – roughly the combined student populations of Manchester and Leeds today.
The 1963 report marked a wider modernisation, one of a number of developments signalling a break with the immediate post-war years. Philip Larkin, Hull University’s Librarian at the time, later summed it up: “So life was never better than / In nineteen sixty-three / (Though just too late for me) / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP” – though perhaps he wasn’t thinking primarily of the Robbins report.
Although the decisions about founding the 1960s new universities had been made well before Robbins was published (the first, Sussex, opened for business in 1961), it is significant that they are so often associated with the report. Like the report itself, they marked new ways of thinking about higher education, both in curricular terms (Asa Briggs’s “new map of learning” at Sussex), in physical terms (leading architects designing bold new campuses), and in terms of the modestly enlarged entries to higher education that followed their establishment, shortly to be followed by the creation of the polytechnics. Suddenly, higher education looked and felt different.
Parallel modernising changes were taking place in the schools system, overseen by two outstanding ministers: Edward Boyle, the Conservative Minister of Education from 1962-64, and Anthony Crosland, the Labour Secretary of State from 1965-67. As Maurice Kogan notes in his book about the two men, The Politics of Education (1971), they directed the transition from “the assumptions of pre-war education psychology [to those of] the post-war radical sociologists about the extent to which ability could be reliably predicted”. Crosland’s Circular 10/65, which “requested” (not a word now much favoured by Secretaries of State) local education authorities to prepare plans to abolish selection in secondary education was a result. The Robbins-validated expansion of higher education was another response to this dawning realisation (to quote Kogan again) “that access to the more favoured forms of education was differentiated according to social class” – not to ability.
Robbins cleared the way intellectually for the expansion of higher education by driving a stake through the heart of the “more means worse” argument – though, like one of the undead in a cheap horror movie, it nevertheless emerges regularly from its grave. What Robbins’s research showed about what he called “the so-called pool of ability” was that entry to university largely depended not on innate ability, but on your father’s occupation: 45% of children whose father was in a “higher professional” occupation went into full-time higher education, compared with about 2% from families where the father was a manual worker. It was your dad’s job, not how bright you were, that determined whether or not you’d go to university.
The higher education system that we see in Britain today would amaze Robbins in terms of its scale and scope. But its foundations were laid by the work of his committee, and others pressing for social and educational change in the early 1960s. We should use this anniversary to honour their work.
This post is based on a previously published article in the Times Higher Education