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The Robbins Report – a political bombshell By Professor Nick Barr

  • 16 October 2023
  • By Professor Nicholas Barr
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Professor Nicholas Barr of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
  • Last week, HEPI published a new Policy Note on the Robbins Report and this blog is the second in a series we are running to mark the 60th anniversary of the Report’s publication in October 1963 – you can read the first one by Dr Josh Patel here.

Perhaps it was because Lionel Robbins was a pillar of the establishment (LSE professor, Life Peer, Chairman of the Financial Times, Director of the Royal Opera House), that the 1963 Robbins Report on higher education landed like a bombshell. Its fundamental position (subsequently known as the ‘Robbins Principle’) was set out at the start.

Throughout our Report we have assumed as an axiom that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so (p. 8).

At this distance it is hard to see just how radical that proposition was. At the time,

  • Only about 5% of young people were on full-time degree courses;
  • Only 1% of working-class girls and 3% of working-class boys did degrees;
  • There was a widely-held view that expansion would dilute quality – in the words of the time, ‘more means worse.’

The world was also very different in other ways. The husband as breadwinner and wife as caregiver was much more the norm than now. It was still the case that if a married woman worked, she could opt for a much lower national insurance contribution on the basis that she would get a pension based on her husband’s contribution record.

The basis of the Robbins Principle was statistical work, led by LSE statistician Claus Moser, which exploded the notion that only a few people were capable of benefiting from higher education. A rising percentage of young people were getting the necessary qualifications to enter university; and many others had the ability but left school at 16 or even earlier. What the data showed (supported by five volumes of statistical evidence) was a large pool of untapped talent. Restricted entry to higher education was a major barrier to the economy.

Robbins, as a social scientist to the core, followed the statistical evidence. Thus the Report proposed that the number of places in higher education should be expanded to ensure that all who were qualified and wished to enter higher education should be able to do so, to which end the Report also recommended the establishment of several new universities and raising a number of existing colleges to university status. Notwithstanding furious letters to The Times, new universities began to be built.

Though the Report was triumphantly right on expansion, with hindsight it left gaps. Where it was not radical (or perhaps politically astute) was how the proposed expansion would be financed. Since numbers were initially small it was plausible to continue public funding of universities and fairly generous tax-financed maintenance grants.

While the optimism of the 1960s lasted, that approach remained plausible, but the Treasury came to have doubts about its long-run sustainability. University funding and maintenance grants became less generous, and expansion slowed down and then stagnated during the 1980s.

In later writing Robbins considered the idea of student loans, arguing that a mortgage-type loan ‘is subject to very considerable disadvantages, both administrative and moral’ (Robbins, 1980, p. 34). He goes on to cite Alan Prest’s (1966) advocacy of loans with income-continent repayments, and goes on to say (ibid, p. 35) that ‘it is a matter of regret to me, personally, that I did not at the time [of the Robbins Report] sufficiently appreciate the advantages of the Prest scheme’.1

With the recent discussion of re-introducing a cap on student numbers, both the Robbins principle and how to finance higher education continue to be a central part of policy discussion. There are three sets of arguments for financing higher education in part (but only in part) through student loans.

The first argument is fairness. ‘Free’ is just another word for ‘someone else pays.’  The people who go to university still come disproportionately from better-off backgrounds. Thus undue reliance on taxpayers on average redistributes from worse off to better off. Additionally, there is powerful evidence that what deters access is not student loans but lack of attainment in school. Thus the most powerful policies to widen participation are increased emphasis on early child development, approaches that support students during primary and secondary education, and (back to the Robbins Principle) enough university places.

The second argument is that what economists call ‘skill-biased technical change’ is increasing the demand for skills.

Third, policy faces a railroad crash between pressures for expansion of higher education on the one hand and longer-term pressures on the public finances on the other, including the pensions and medical costs of an ageing population.

Its imperfections notwithstanding, the current system of tuition fees and income-contingent loans in England seeks to address all three points and, to that extent, the central Robbins vision of higher education open to all with the ability and aptitude is alive and, given skill-biased technical change, arguably more relevant than ever.

1 Prest, Alan (1966), Financing University Education, Institute of Economic Affairs; Robbins, Lionel (1980), Higher Education Revisited, Macmillan.

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1 comment

  1. David Hughes says:

    Thinking about where we are on HE funding is vitally important and it’s interesting to see the thinking from Robbins all those years ago. The recognition of what has changed since then, though, is partial at best, with the thinking stuck, as it is in many university crickets, on HE equalling three-year residential Bachelor’s degrees, as if that is the only and ‘best’ form of higher education. Surely, with longer working lives, longstanding low productivity and regional inequalities as well as the current fiscal constraints, we need a wider debate? Opening up participation in residential degrees is a very expensive option, for the taxpayer and for the student and their family. As I write this, there will be howls of noise about how unfair it would be to deny that experience to people from lower income households, but even with widening participation, the gaps between better and lesser well off people has stayed stubbornly wide. So, can we start to describe, design and deliver a more diverse set of HE experiences – one year standalone with day release from work (remember them?), one year at college articulating to 2 for a degree (learn from Scotland perhaps?), actually embracing LLE as a way to bring people into HE for the first time (rather than simply allowing everyone with a degree an extra year), apprenticeships for young people which take them from entry-level jobs to as high as their talent takes them (rather than degree apps for the high achievers at age 18 and the privileged in higher managerial jobs). If the university sector continues to narrowly focus on the fee and maintenance arrangements for residential degrees our economy will continue to suffer and people will be excluded from the learning they want and deserve.

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