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Long Live the Robbins Principle! By Professor Peter Mandler

  • 18 October 2023
  • By Professor Peter Mandler
  • This blog was kindly written for HEPI by Professor Peter Mandler. Peter teaches Modern British History at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, and is the author of The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War (2020).
  • This blog is in a series that HEPI is running to mark the 60th anniversary of the Robbins Report’s publication in October 1963. You can read the other entries – as well as HEPI’s Policy Note on the Robbins Report – here.

Lots of things are claimed for the Robbins Report that don’t hold up to scrutiny.  It was responsible for the ‘plateglass’ universities of the 1960s. Nope – all of the famous ‘English 7’ plateglass universities were lined up before the Report was issued, and one (Sussex) was already open for business. Robbins reveals the underlying philosophy of British higher education. Well, maybe, but which philosophy? The Report has been called aristocratic and democratic, arts-biased and science-biased, overly modelled on Oxbridge or shockingly modern. In general, assessments of the Report have tended to exaggerate the influence that this report, or any report, could have had on a large and growing network of self-governing and largely self-regulating universities, funded by but not otherwise much directed by the state.

But one thing the Report can be credited with: and that is its famous Principle, to which all political parties signed up in 1963 and, through thick and thin, most have (just about) held to since. It has served as the single strongest regulator over the past 60 years of both higher education policy and practice. What is that Principle? It was laid out by Robbins near the top of his report: that courses of higher education should be made ‘available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’. In practice this had already governed higher education policy before Robbins – as the natural extension of a prior principle laid out in 1920 that secondary education should be available to all those qualified by ability and attainment to benefit from it. In a sense this ‘Robbins Principle’ in practice can be said to have led to the commissioning of the Robbins Report (rather than vice-versa), as Robbins’ Committee was set up to decide what to do about a looming deficit of higher education places as more and more young people stayed on to 16 and 18 and wanted to stay on longer. But it was Robbins’ insistence on the Principle in his report, and subsequently from the House of Lords, that committed governments to this demand-side programme for higher education growth more or less ever since.

‘More or less’. Government had many reasons to like the Robbins Principle. It enabled long-term planning and predictable public expenditure commitments. Even the Treasury accepted it in 1963 so long as the question was left open as to how to pay for it, leading in the long term to fees and loans replacing grants. Around 1970, with growth outpacing Robbins’ forecasts and inflation looming, there were grumbles. A young Ken Clarke was a rare dissentient in 1971, decrying the glut of graduates, higher education’s growing share of educational expenditure, and ‘the revolution of rising expectations’ which the Principle abetted. Happily for him and everyone else in power demand slackened off, demographic decline set in, and there wasn’t another pressure point on the Principle until the early 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph began to question it both in principle and in practice. Joseph induced higher education authorities to modify the Principle to take into account ‘ability to benefit’, hoping this would provide government with wiggle room to limit access to higher education. It didn’t have that effect;  more and more students were demonstrating ‘ability to benefit’ by passing the relevant exams, and by the mid-1980s demand was in full flood again. Backbenchers wanted that demand to be met. Thatcher mercilessly ditched Joseph, replaced him with Kenneth Baker, and turned the taps of supply on again. The Principle lived on and has presided over a trebling of the participation to over half of the age cohort.

We are evidently now at another of those pressure points, as the fee and loan system groans under the pressure of high demand (and, currently, of inflation as well). Government Ministers talk freely about ‘low-value’ or even ‘rip-off’ courses, which the demand-based Principle opens to all-comers, but which are not judged (by Ministers at least) as value for money either for government or students. And yet for several years now government has trembled fearfully on the brink of doing anything about it. The Augar Report of 2019, which was commissioned in part to save government from having to sort this out themselves, itself held back from revoking the Principle by, for example, barring access to low-tariff degrees. That would be ‘social engineering’, it said, unfair, and unsuited to a ‘meritocratic education system’. It decided instead to give the higher education system some more years to sort it out on its own, by dropping low-tariff courses or ensuring they paid off better by yielding higher graduate returns. 

And no doubt, despite Thatcher’s own hesitations over the Principle, both government and its Committee felt that the Principle was – as one would expect from the economist Lionel Robbins – a market principle, therefore worthy of defending. Students are the best judges themselves of whether they will ‘benefit’ from higher education (even if they don’t measure this only in terms of graduate income). Let universities offer courses validated to constitute ‘higher education’ and let anyone ‘qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them’ do so, judging their own ‘ability to benefit’.  Anything else would be ‘social engineering’, or not ‘meritocratic’. Perhaps, too, any minister tempted to ditch the Principle has Keith Joseph’s example before their eyes, fearing the wrath of their constituents should their children – brandishing triumphantly their A-level and BTEC certificates, and their UCAS acceptances – be turned away from higher education because for reasons of their own someone on high decided that they wouldn’t really benefit after all.

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  1. David Hughes says:

    Applying the Robbins Principle (that courses of higher education should be made ‘available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so) involves a hidden form of social engineering because there is no such principle for adults who need education up to Level 3. Applying the principle only to HE effectively condemns over half of adults to a life without opportunities to learn. That cannot be fair and needs to be addressed, surely? Or is the view that the people without a suitable Level 3 qualification do not have the ability to learn to higher levels? If so, it would be good to have that debate. Otherwise, we need to look, as the Augar report said, at how we invest more in the people who don’t currently have the ‘attainment’ to benefit from loans to learn at higher levels. Wouldn’t it be nice if universities and academics joined with colleges in making that case, for all adults with all levels of learning?

  2. Peter Mandler says:

    Of course FE and adult education need to be better funded. We need to consider all tertiary education together. But in fact there is entitlement to free courses to L3 and other courses are ‘available’ (just not free – but neither are HE courses any longer).

  3. David Hughes says:

    Peter – L3 courses are limited by a budget which has halved in the last 12 years – in other words the opposite of the Robbins principle. There is also no maintenance support at all, making it impossible for many learners to achieve a Level 3 as an adult and feed themselves/their family at the same time.

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