Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Grants for all!

  • 2 June 2014

The beefed-up Wonkhe website is going from strength to strength at the moment. Recent interesting additions include a piece by Mark Leach on higher education wonks and one by Carl Lygo of BPP University on the true costs of a good higher education experience, which refers to the recent HEPI / HEA Academic Experience Survey that features elsewhere on this website. Today, Wonkhe publish a piece by David Malcolm of the NUS marking the 54th anniversary of the Anderson report of 1960, which led to the national system of student support.

As David says, this report has been overlooked in the history books but is very important. He kindly refers to my 2012 article in Contemporary British History entitled ‘From Grants for All to Loans for All: Undergraduate Finance from the Implementation of the Anderson Report (1962) to the Implementation of the Browne Report (2012)’, which – unsurprisingly, given the title – does cover it.

The Anderson report was seeking to tackle a very real problem: the unfair and discretionary student support rules. Here’s two facts about how the previous locally-determined system had worked during the 1950s:

  • the number of LEA awards for each 10,000 people varied from 1.51 in Leeds to 20.46 in Cardiganshire;
  • the average award had ranged from £96 in Bury to £276 in Gloucester.

The Anderson committee confirmed that the way the system worked was incredibly unfair: ‘[the applicant] may not know until a few days before he is due to take up his place at the university whether he will receive an award from his local education authority or not. Indeed, it is not unknown for an applicant to be refused an award so near the beginning of the academic year that the university department which he had hoped to enter cannot fill the vacancy thus created.’

So the Anderson report was overdue and sought to tackle a real social, economic and educational problem. But it also gave the later Robbins committee an excuse not to consider higher education finance fully: Robbins assumed expansion would occur on a traditionalist model of higher education within the Anderson report’s financial settlement. According to John Carswell, a senior higher education official who wrote a brilliant book entitled Government and the Universities in Britain: Programme and Performance 1960–1980: ‘Perhaps if the Robbins Committee had been asked to consider student support as well as the pattern and size of the institutional system, it would have come up with the same answer as the Anderson Committee. But this is far from certain.’

David Malcolm is more positive about the Anderson report than I am. In some ways that is surprising, given the NUS’s support for progressive systems of student support today (such as a graduate tax). Anderson was a universalist rather than a progressive document: for example, when the Government decided against the wishes of the majority of the Anderson committee to retain parental contributions towards the cost of higher education for those from wealthier families, middle-class students at Bristol University held a protest march.

My concern is that the Anderson report did not sufficiently recognise the trade-off between funding and the number of places that could be afforded. While it was a document of its day and should perhaps be judged by the standards of the time to some degree, it still made life much trickier for later reformers by embedding the concept that it was affordable to have a system in which students / graduates did not contribute to the costs of their own education. When expansion occurred, it came at the cost of the unit of resource. Those of us who went to university in the 1990s had a less good educational experience as a result.

I wrote my piece on the history of student loans because it worried me that the history was so poorly known. Indeed, as a special adviser in the government department with responsibility for higher education policy, it worried me how little the history was known within government as well as outside it. This is partly because officials move around a lot, partly because higher education policy has moved around Whitehall a lot and partly because history is not valued sufficiently within Whitehall. It also worried me that so many accounts of post-war university policy incorrectly assume that no students contributed to their tuition costs, which is wrong. But, above all, I wrote the piece so that I could learn the history better myself during the process of writing it. I plead guilty to David’s claim that my article ‘is perhaps a product of fifty years of hindsight’ but then history is hindsight.

Putting the article together also gave me interesting first-hand experience of the academic publishing process. The first journal I sent it to rejected it out of hand two days after submission, without sending it out for peer review, on the grounds that the ‘narrative seems familiar’. That struck me as an unconvincing reason then, as it does now: since it has been published in a second journal, it has been much more widely read than any of the other four peer-reviewed articles I wrote beforehand and, gratifyingly, is a new entry on the journal’s ‘most read articles’ list.

So there clearly is an appetite for knowing more about the history of recent higher education policymaking. Long may that continue.


  1. dkernohan says:

    I would whole-heartedly agree about the disturbing lack of – and the need for – a knowledge of the history of policy making in Higher Education. Even in the 10 years I’ve been in the HE policy field I’ve seen ideas repeat themselves several times.

    I’d love to see HEPI or Wonkhe or both write and publish more on this fascinating topic.

  2. David Malcolm says:

    Thank you in return for your kind words about my article and I’m glad at the very least that our mutual concern that there should be greater discussion of Anderson, and the history of HE policy is being addressed, at least to some degree.

    I am more positive about Anderson, though very much appreciating that it was a product of its time, which was a more universalist age – also one with far higher marginal tax rates, so progressive in a different way perhaps. Carswell notes just after the quote you provide that there was “a strength of feeling which bore up the Robbins proposals and made the leaders of both parties place higher education expansion at the forefront of their programmes” and I think Anderson reflected that wider concern. Later generations had different spending priorities and different choices were made about HE funding but those would always be difficult.

    Though the parental means-test was retained, it wasn’t simply middle-class students who argued for its abolition – both Conservative and Labour MPs made passionate arguments in favour in the debate on the Education Bill which followed Anderson. In the Commons the then Minister for Education, David Eccles, noted that of the bodies he had consulted 75% were in favour of its abolition, 25% against – roughly the same split as on the Committee. Personally, I think the right thing to do was to retain it; I only wish the recommendation by Brinley Thomas (in his note of reservation in the report) that the budget proposed should go to provide financial support for poor schoolchildren to stay on after 15, in part so they could get into HE in the first place, had been enacted instead. Despite their grand ambition, the various reforms of the 1960s never did open up HE across the social spectrum, and that might have allowed greater headway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *