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Robbins, Specialist Institutions and Industrial Policy

  • 24 October 2023
  • By Andy Westwood
  • Today commemorates 60 years since the Robbins Report was accepted by the government of the day in October 1963. HEPI has marked the anniversary of the Robbins Report 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 by Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester. He is also a former special and political advisor and a former civil servant.

The Robbins Report had a great deal to say about higher education in the UK and some parts are better known than others. Top of the list was that university places ‘should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment’ which has become known as the ‘Robbins principle’. Arguably the next most famous – the creation of a new wave of ‘modern’, ‘plate glass’, or (at the time), ‘Shakespearean’ universities (including Essex, Lancaster, Sussex, York, Kent, Warwick) and the designation of a series of institutions as polytechnics weren’t actually recommendations from Robbins or his committee at all.

Much less well known – but influencing both of these things – were the recommendations Robbins actually made for creating a series of specialist technical institutions with university status. UMIST, UWIST and Imperial already existed – as did a series of CATs (Colleges of Advanced Technology), but Robbins wanted more – influenced (probably) by the great technological changes in the economy and society at that time. Harold Wilson had given his famous ‘white heat of technology’ speech just before the Committee published its report in October 1963 and this was a time of great social as well as economic and technological upheaval – The Beatles were at No 1 with ‘She Loves You’ and as the ‘Cold War’ raged, the second James Bond film ‘From Russia with Love’ was also released in October 1963. 

Soon afterwards in 1964 Wilson created the Department for Economic Affairs to help drive industrial policy (also to challenge the control of the Treasury) and supported by the creation of the polytechnics in 1965. Robbins had recommended a different approach with a ‘need for special Institutions for scientific and technological education and research specialist universities’ – to reflect and help drive wider economic change.

The massive expansion we have proposed for higher education as a whole will facilitate the building up of larger institutions and faculties. But we believe that a further striking innovation is required if this country is to demonstrate beyond all doubt that it is prepared to give to technology the prominence that the economic needs of the future will surely demand. Our recommendation is that there should be developed as soon as possible a small number of Special Institutions for Scientific and Technological Education and Research. In making this proposal we have been much influenced by the fact that there is as yet in this country too little that compares for both scope and scale with the great institutions abroad that we visited, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Technical High Schools at Zürich and Delft.

But these ambitions remained largely unfulfilled, although the idea and broad approach has continued to be a feature in policy debates about higher education and research ever since. They spoke not just to growing student demand, increased capacity and new institutions – but also to the broader economy and the demands it must place on a growing and diversifying sector too. Robbins was adamant that, ‘these special institutions should be university institutions,’ and that their primary focus on science and technology should be complemented by social sciences and together at sufficient scale to thrive.

We desire no rigid uniformity, but we are clear that the institutions must share certain characteristics. First, the centre of gravity should be in science and technology. But other related subjects such as social studies, operational research and statistics should be developed on a significant scale, and languages will be needed at least as ancillary subjects. Second, the institutions must be large, so as to cover a wide range of subjects with an appropriate division of labour within each… Third, there must be a strong emphasis on postgraduate studies: postgraduate students ought to form about half the student body. There should be ready access at postgraduate level for graduates from other university institutions.

The British HE system already had Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) – established in the mid 1950s in places like Bristol, Birmingham, London, Northampton, Salford and Battersea. They were associated with a strong focus on science and technology and with working closely with industry eg through running ‘sandwich courses’ and delivering applied research. Robbins recommended they become specialist universities enhancing this new mission and so Aston, Bath, Brunel, Loughborough and Salford, Surrey, City and Bradford were born.  Robbins was equally clear that all institutions should work more closely with industry and with the specialist research institutions that also existed at that time. 

…we are clear that in Great Britain there is scope for much closer relations with the research establishments, especially those maintained by the Government. Closer links are also needed with industry. Many institutions have hesitated to form such links from a fear that industry might attach strings. There are problems here, but they should not be exaggerated.

But the last sixty years have not proved to be a great period for the specialist institutions envisaged by Robbins. There have been many attempts to create more of them – in both FE and HE – but few have survived for very long. Those that have such as the CATs or the polytechnics – or some of the research institutes have all tended to become more mainstream university institutions. Others have merged into larger institutions or folded completely. In other parts of the tertiary system this has also been a centrepiece of reform with Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs), National Skills Academies (NSAs) and National Colleges (NCs) coming and largely going. But the interest of policymakers in creating specialist institutions and through them helping to drive broader economic change has never really gone away. 

The Conservatives have also flirted with industrial strategy, including the creation of ‘institutes of technology’ and poured money into R&D in order to establish the UK as a ‘science superpower’. And at the recent Labour Party Conference, Keir Starmer and Bridget Philipson proposed new ‘technical excellence’ institutions – to drive their ‘missions’ and particularly, national economic growth. As in Robbins and Wilson’s time, this is also envisaged as part of an industrial strategy characterised by the application of R&D, skills and closer relationships between specialist institutions and the economy. 

But as many in universities today will rightly note, since the 1960s the interest of successive governments in this agenda hasn’t always been sustained. However, stagnant economic growth, deep spatial inequality and the global ‘polycrisis’ of fractured global supply chains, technological disruption, national security fears and the climate crisis means that policy approaches are changing and evolving rapidly. In the US we see the IRA and CHIPs Acts focused on new industries and place-based policy – built in part, on universities, specialist institutions and on R&D. In Europe and Asia this has been a much more longstanding approach where both general and specialist institutions have been able to co-exist and thrive in both tertiary and research systems.

But that hasn’t really happened to the same extent in the UK – or not least in the way that Robbins or Wilson hoped. Subsequent sector reforms and economic orthodoxies have tended to reinforce more supply-side and market-based models and the subsequent dominance of large general institutions with R&D concentrated within them. Specialist institutions have more likely been squeezed out – in FE, HE and in R&D – despite the ambitions of different ministers and governments. 

But the Committee had been clear – with a growing population and a rapidly changing society and economy, ‘this demand cannot be fully met by the universities’, but ‘it must be fully met if we are to progress as a nation in the modern technological world’. Robbins was in little doubt that to meet these economic and social challenges, universities would play a central role. But that they would do so in a variety of different forms – new and old, general and specialist and through closer partnerships with both industry and an active state. It didn’t quite end up that way, but perhaps we’ve now reached the point where it should.

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  1. Gordon Dent says:

    It seems pretty unlikely specialist science & technology institutions could survive in the current funding environment unless they were catering predominantly for international students or had major, long-term industrial research funding. Science & technology education is expensive to deliver and, if most students are paying home fees, institutions require large numbers of students on low-cost humanities & social-science courses to subsidise them.

  2. Tom Cannon says:

    Disappointing that Andy misses several crucial features of U.K. Higher Education that have blighted progress to developing a system that is largely immune to the responses to the wider economic and social needs that Robbins and Wilson sought. First, it is massively inward looking especially at the top. External appointments at Vice Chancellor and senior management are virtually unknown. Second the inward looking nature of institutions was made worse by the Thatcherite blight of the Research Assessment exercises. These have been overwhelming focussed on that most useless of all criteria for the wider society – publications in refereed journals. Third, the curse of the Apprentice Model Doctorate compounds all these problems by reinforcing the absurd notion that scientific progress is driven forward by the individual researcher not the team – a model that the Thomas Edison rejected decades ago. Add to that, the contemporary use of the Doctorate as a license to trade and the problems are compounded as everyone from first year undergraduates to employers has realised.

  3. Albert Wright says:

    Cross subsidising Science and Technology courses already happens in many Universities and specific courses are eligible for direct subsidies through high cost course payments directly to Universities eg for Medicine.

    However, this method of funding is complex and opaque and should be reformed.

    Ideally, each University should calculate the real cost of delivering each course and this information should be published. In general, higher cost to deliver courses are associated with higher salaries post graduation. This could be the basis for reformed funding of Universities whereby such graduates would pay an additional levy / tax for being allowed to study these high cost subjects like medicine.

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