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The Robbins Report believed in ‘vigorous government action’ – but there is an alternative By Professor James Tooley

  • 19 October 2023
  • By Professor James Tooley

Government intervention in British universities really took off after the 1963 Robbins Report. Some expansion had already begun – my alma mater, the University of Sussex (BSc 1983, MSc 1987), was set up in 1961, one of seven new “plate-glass” universities established prior to Robbins. But there were 25 other universities created in the 1960s, followed by numerous others since then, which were all part of the Robbins’ revolution.

For Lord Robbins put the official stamp of approval on greater government funding and regulation. This was required to “keep up with” our economic competitors. Robbins’ conclusions are clear: “Both in general cultural standards and in competitive intellectual power, vigorous [government] action is needed to avert the danger of a serious relative decline in this country’s standing’ (para. 130).

The only way to solve Britain’s deleterious relative position with its competitors was through additional public spending and regulation.

However, a careful reading of the Robbins Report leads one to the opposite conclusion. Far from establishing reasons why British universities should expand through government funding and regulation in order to keep up with our competitors, the opposite conclusion would seem to be more obviously reached from the evidence given.

First, one country which Robbins studiously ignored in the Report was the Federal Republic of Germany, a curious omission. Discussion of it is relegated to Appendix 5 (not published online).

In terms of enrolment and graduation rates, Great Britain came out much better than Germany. Furthermore, in Germany there was not to be any expansion of higher education in the 1960s. Moreover, in Germany there were no signs of an increase in “the proportion of the age group completing a secondary education … and obtaining the qualifications for university entrance”. This proportion was already lower than in Great Britain and France: “This is most surprising”, the report observes, “in view of the recent economic growth of Germany, for in most western countries prosperity is thought to be a main reason why a steadily increasing proportion of young people desire to … proceed to further study.’ (Appendix 5, p. 80).

Surely, if in the most important growing economy of Western Europe, higher education is not a cause, or even an effect of, this growth, this should be important to mention? Not a bit. Germany was ignored when the Report gave its recommendations for expanded government intervention in the UK.

While ignoring Germany, the report reveals three of Robbins’ great passions: the higher education systems in the USA and USSR, and, third, central planning of universities of any kind – he gushes about France, for instance, even while agreeing that central planning has not been successful, or might not bring any tangible results!

What of the USSR and the USA? Perhaps we don’t need to spend any time on the Soviet Union, long since gone. But what was the single most important difference between the higher education systems in the USA and UK?

With regard to public expenditure on higher education, Britain spent the (equal) greatest proportion of GNP of all the countries reviewed: 1962-3 figures showed Britain, with 0.8% of GNP spent on higher education, equal to the USA and USSR, and much greater than France (0.3%), Germany (0.4%) and Sweden (0.5%).

Where Britain fell short, particularly in comparison with North America, was in terms of private expenditure: By that time, only 10% of all higher education expenditure in Britain was from private sources, compared to 31% in USA.

This fact is only mentioned in passing in the report (p. 45), and ignored completely when finance is considered and recommendations made. Presumably it offended Robbins’ taste in what a higher education system should be, even though the evidence begs for it to be considered.

Had it been taken into account, a completely different set of recommendations could have influenced the development of British higher education, focused on increasing private finance rather than making universities become increasingly dependent on government only.

Without being too contrived, I suppose one could say that one privately financed university was brought into being because of Robbins: Growing dissatisfaction with the way government was increasingly getting involved with higher education post-Robbins led to notable academics – including Sir Sydney Caine, the director of the LSE, and Professor Max Beloff of Oxford – planning to set up a new university which was to be staunchly independent of government finance and – so the founders believed – government control.

This was the University of Buckingham, the UK’s foremost independent university.

Margaret Thatcher got involved very early on, joining the Board of Patrons in 1973, giving the first matriculation speech in 1976, and joining as Chancellor in 1992. This unforeseen side effect of the Robbins-led expansion of government control of higher education must, I suppose, be weighed in the balance.

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  1. Ros Lucas says:

    Not forgetting the much wider use of Apprenticeships and earlier involvement in vocational subjects and employability skills in Germany, France and other countries…
    Together with higher status of vocational learning and parity of esteem and wages for all workers, university was not seen as the only route to success!

  2. James Stanfield says:

    Tooley highlights an important point. The hidden costs and unintended consequences of government intervention in HE are often ignored. One can only assume that extensive research looking into this issue has previously been carried out and the findings shared with those involved in developing public policy. How embarrassing it would be if this issue had been neglected.

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