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The Robbins Review – Lessons for the Future by Professor Huw Morris

  • 23 October 2023
  • By Huw Morris
  • Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the Robbins Report of October 1963. HEPI has marked the event with a Policy Note on the influence of the Robbins Report and a blog series – you can access all the material here.
  • This new piece was kindly authored for HEPI by Huw Morris, who is an Honorary Professor of Tertiary Education at the Institute of Education, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, and who is currently on secondment from the Welsh Government.

The Robbins Review report was published 60 years ago this October. The review made a series of recommendations which have provided a reference point for comment on UK Government higher education policy ever since. This article looks back at the report and considers what the lessons might be for politicians, officials and higher education leaders contemplating a future review.

The Times Were A-Changin!

The thing that most people in UK universities associate with the original Robbins Report was the recommendation, welcomed by most university leaders and staff, that the number of higher education students should increase threefold from 216,000 to 697,000 over a twenty-year period and that more universities should be built to accommodate this expansion. As others have shown in the recent past, not least Nick Hillman in his article on the Anderson Report in 1960, many parts of this expansion were already in train (Hillman, 2013). What was particularly new about the Robbins Review was a costed proposal for more money which promised by reference to nascent Human Capital Theory to be self-financing through growth in productivity.

In the early 1960s it seemed possible to plan for the longer term because the UK was moving out of a period of post-war austerity and beginning to enjoy a time in which as Harold Macmillan said, “most of our people have never had it so good” (BBC, 2023). A time in which the new Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, could call on the country to prepare for a future that would be formed through the white heat of a technological revolution (Byrne, 2016). In this and many other respects, the Robbins review caught the spirit of the time.  Indeed, the Robbins Report was published on the same day as Bob Dylan recorded the song “The Times They Are A-Changin”.

A Capital Idea?

In the USA, as the Robbins Review got underway, President Kennedy was calling for increased expenditure on education at all levels, particularly in science and technology, to promote economic growth and to respond to the perceived threat of Soviet technological superiority.

The rationale for the increased investment in education in the USA was influenced by the newly developed Human Capital Theory outlined by the University of Chicago economist Theodore Schultz in his speech to the American Economic Association in 1960 (Schultz, 1960). The belief that expenditure on education and training, as well as health and the promotion of economic migration, could foster economic growth had a long history in economic thought. The innovation that Schultz brought was to argue that this could be treated like a capital investment that would pay for itself through the private and public economic returns obtained from subsequent increases in productivity.

In the UK Human Capital Theory influenced the deliberations of the Robbins Review as is evidenced by the section on treating expenditure as an investment in future productivity growth, however, this is caveated by the comment that “there is no means of estimating how great these changes will be”(Robbins, 1963:205). More importantly in retrospect, there was no direct reference in the main body of the report to individual income contingent loan finance to cover the costs of tuition with the state acting as guarantor for unpaid debt if individual graduate earnings did not increase enough to repay the original loan with interest. A proposal of this type had been made by another University of Chicago economist, Milton Friedman, in 1955, and it has been suggested that Lord Robbins later lamented not pushing for this as a recommendation in the final report, however, the proposal did not appear in the recommendations (Friedman, 1955; Patel, 2022). Over the next forty years, the original proposal for a collective investment in higher education to boost national productivity gradually transmogrified into a proposal for national underwriting of loans to individual students based on assumptions about future salary growth.

Firm Economic Foundations?

The justification for increased collective investment in higher education in the Robbins Report was based on the assumption that inflation would remain low, that economic growth in the UK would average 3.25% per annum and that a greater proportion of school leavers would progress to university having passed the recently created O’ and A’ level examinations (Robbins, 1963). There was also a view that there was considerable headroom within the UK’s growing welfare state and other professional occupations for graduates to find gainful employment.

Not all of the assumptions that underpinned the calculations in the Robbins Report were realised. Student demand for higher education increased year on year, however, inflation increased, economic growth fell short of the target and social mobility began to slow. Regrettably, many of these trends have become more pronounced in recent times. Inflation is high and reducing slowly (Hooker et al, 2023). The relationship between investment in higher education and productivity growth has become weaker (Conlon et al, 2023). Social Mobility as traditionally measured has reduced (Social Mobility Commission, 2023). These changes and similar trends in other nations have led some to suggest that Human Capital Theory is dead or dying (Lauder et al, 2022).

Future prospects do not look much better.  Reductions in capital investment in the UK look set to reduce future productivity growth further particularly in regions outside the South East (Dibb and Murphy, 2023). The greater use of Artificial Intelligence may reduce the demand for graduate workers (Schleicher, 2023).  Changing geo-politics have raised questions about the risks associated with international student recruitment (Adams et al, 2023). Meanwhile, the prospect of further Climate Change has raised questions about the sustainability of current campus operations (McCowan, 2020).

Forgetting the Seventy Percent

The Newsom Report, “Half our Future”, was published in the same year as the Robbins Report, but like many other subsequent reports dealing with post-secondary education that takes place outside universities, this report has slipped from the public and academic consciousness (Newsom, 1963). The Robbins Review focused on nationally funded higher education and decided early on not to consider the wider range of further and higher education funded by local authorities. The combination of these decisions meant that most of the UK’s population was excluded from the remit of the report’s recommendations.

Many subsequent reviews of post-secondary education have adopted similar distinctions, so whether it was the Dearing, Moser, Kennedy or Browne reviews, they all focused on some parts of the tertiary education system and ignored others.  On the rare occasions when a broader perspective was taken, as was demonstrated in the Leitch and Augar reviews, many of the proposals were forgotten when the ministers who had commissioned the review were out of office. As Paul Johnson notes in his excellent recent book “Follow the Money”, politicians and officials tend to focus their attention and funding on the system they have been through (Johnson, 2023). They may not mean to ignore and reduce the funding for the education and training of the seventy per cent who haven’t been to university; but they do.

What Next?

So, what does the Robbins Review teach us about a possible future review of post-secondary education in the UK? Well, the times are still a changin, however the economy is in a much weaker position in historic and relative terms. Most importantly it is by no means clear that the current pattern of investment in human capital will produce the productivity improvements, economic growth and social mobility that were promised in the past. Graduate salaries continue to be higher than those of non-graduates, but can this be assured for 40 years in the face of AI, geo-political shifts and climate change and in a world of widening wealth inequalities, is it what is needed? Meanwhile, the growth of higher education and research activity has not demonstrably helped to alleviate differences in the economic and social fortunes of a majority of the population in the different regions of the country. Differences which are most evident in persistent skills shortages in key industries and occupations. These challenges affect not only the politicians and policymakers forced to choose and advise, they should also affect the construction and validation of the models and theories that underpin much of the advice proposed. As at the time of the Robbins Review, alternative approaches are being considered in other parts of the World and there may be lessons to be learned from there. The recommendations that flow from this type of analysis may not be as attractive as the original Robbins Report was to university leaders and staff, but it might just be what is needed for the next twenty years.


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Patel, J. (2022) The Puzzle of Lionel Robbins: How a Neoliberal Economist Expanded Public University Education in 1960s Britain, 20th Century British History, Vol. 34, No. 2. pp 220–245.

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Schultz, T. (1961) Investment in Human Capital, American Economic Review, Vol. 51, No. 1 pp1-17.

Social Mobility Commission (2023) State of the Nation 2023: People and places. Available at:

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