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New perspectives on the Robbins Report at 60: education for citizenship versus education for consumerism?

  • 20 September 2023
  • By Josh Patel

October marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of the Report of the Committee on Higher Education (1963), the famous Robbins Report. The report’s conviction that courses in HE should be made ‘available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’ (the so-called ‘Robbins Principle’) is still passionately championed.

It’s easy to see why the report remains a keystone of HE policy discussion. Deploying remarkably readable and ardent prose and a sophisticated programme of statistical and sociological analysis, the report emphatically demonstrated there was no limit to the number of young people who might benefit from attending HE. It recommended expanding HE from 216,000 to 507,000 full-time students between 1963 and 1981. Following the implementation of a new mandatory grant for students in 1962, the report proposed that not only should the system grow but that the state should pay for the education of all these students. To pay for this, the report calculated the proportion of Gross National Product devoted to HE should double.

This enthusiasm, emblematic of post-war optimism and channelling a ‘spirit of social justice!’, contrasts sharply to the resignation around current HE funding. Articulating widely held sentiments, historian James Vernon laments that HE policy has retreated from Robbins ‘social democratic’ welfare principles and since the 1990s pursued a ‘neoliberal’ agenda concerned with maximising individual returns on investments.

However, Lord Willetts argues the HE policy implemented by the twenty-first century Coalition Government was not antagonistic to the vision of the Robbins Report: rather, it extended it. At events marking the 50th anniversary of the report, Nicholas Barr and Howard Glennerster proposed that the new 2012 student loans regime (incidentally, I was a member of the first cohort of school leavers to participate in this system) was one of which ‘Robbins would have approved’. The committee’s chairman Lord Lionel Robbins was, curiously, one of the foremost neoliberal economists of his day.

The sixtieth anniversary provides a fitting occasion to present a new perspective on the report and its contested legacy.

Consumer Citizenship

Current prevailing narratives – especially that ‘social democratic’ redistributive welfare regimes were supplanted by ‘neoliberal’ marketisation strategies – obscure as much as they reveal. The literature tends to assume that the economic case for expansion of HE in the report was secondary to a social case. As Peter Scott argued in comments marking the 25th anniversary of the Report, ‘the individual citizen, not economic man or the mass consumer, was at the centre of the Robbins inquiry’. However, these categories are not so easily disentangled.

The report embraced post-war enthusiasm for investing in education to nurture citizens’ talents and achieve ‘economic growth and higher cultural standards’. Yet it made this argument wielding the then unorthodox idea of calculating potential returns on individuals’ ‘human capital’. Students, the report held and drawing on Lionel Robbins’ personal liberal convictions, if made free were inherently capable of knowing and pursuing their best interests. ‘We deceive ourselves if we claim that more than a small fraction of students in institutions of higher education would be where they are if there were no significance for their future careers’, the report stressed and it was a ‘mistake to suppose that there is anything discreditable’ in this.

This was not simply profit maximisation or minimisation of pain. Robbins held this was students exercising their inherent capacities to pursue human flourishing. By generating returns on investment in their human capital, they would attain greater ways of being, while specialising to participate in the ‘division of labour’ (drawing explicitly on Adam Smith), raise productivity, and help to engender the prosperous ‘good society’.

Investment in HE through the redistribution of national wealth was about democratising opportunities for citizens to ‘wish’ and pursue their own best interests. The report viewed the new mandatory grant as an important investment in overcoming psychosocial barriers by lowering the opportunity cost of attending higher education especially for women and lower classes. The report aimed to inculcate an aspirational but consumerist rationality in the population. This process would eventually defeat the need for subsidy. Just eight years after the publication of the report, Lionel Robbins was advocating a loans scheme to avoid the state subsidising the private incomes of a privileged minority through the income of the wider population.

This did not mean reducing HE to specialist skills acquisition. The report’s recommendations were predicated on expansion being in liberal courses developing ‘general powers of the mind’.

While specialisation was a necessary part of the division of labour, ‘overspecialisation’ reduced citizens’ capacity to understand one another and collaborate. To best make use of powerful modern knowledge, students needed an interdisciplinary, broad understanding of modern society. Scientists needed an appreciation of the social context in which their powerful knowledge was to be deployed, and humanists needed to appreciate the transformative power of technology. As one Vice-Chancellor of the time put it, a chemist working in industry should appreciate not just pure chemical theory but how a given industrial process might be most economic given available resources. It also meant, during the uncertainty of the Cold War, appreciating the virtues of liberal capitalism. The profit motive, for example, was not about self-interest but an indication of genuine social need for a social good.

Rethinking Policy Assumptions

Robbins’ holistic assessment of HE indicates one way to combat narrow economic valuations. The report’s faith that the state has a role in supporting individuals to pursue human flourishing and their own chosen best interests of course encompasses more than pecuniary returns can capture. A central benefit is the capacity of liberal capitalist democracies to cultivate the moral conduct required of their citizens to perpetuate itself and engender the free and prosperous society and a functioning democracy. Having lived through the horrors of the First and Second World Wars and acutely aware of the dangers of a third, the Robbins committee recognised the necessity of investing in expanding support for a civic-minded citizenry. Tackling similar existential ‘grand challenges’ of the twenty-first century, like climate change, AI, future healthcare crises, global inequalities of wealth and gender, decolonisation, and disinformation, still requires global citizens to understand their roles and responsibilities in wielding powerful knowledge. Investment in education needs to account for this.

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