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Review of The Robbins Report at 60 (HEPI Policy Note 49) by Mike Shattock

  • 18 November 2023
  • By Michael Shattock
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Michael Shattock, Visiting Professor at the UCL Institute of Education. It reviews a HEPI Policy Note by Nick Hillman: you can read that piece here.
  • Alongside this Policy Note, HEPI has also marked the anniversary of the Robbins Report with a blog series – you can access all the material here.

The Robbins Report was not produced (paras 1-2) out of a political vacuum. The Government had been alerted to the future funding dilemmas posed by the likely increase in the demand for student places in higher education by the Treasury through the University Grants Committee (UGC) and appointed Lord Robbins as a safe pair of hands (with a strong Treasury background as well as holding a leading university position). The Committee began meeting in 1961 but the context to the public reaction to its forecasts was strongly linked to an event in Parliament in March 1962 when the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Henry Brooke) announced that he had rejected the UGC’s building programme for the anticipated expansion and deferred its increased number targets from 1967/8 to 1973/4. This produced public outrage and, in the House, from the Government’s own ranks as well as from Labour. This was the first time that the UGC’S targets had been turned down, and the decision was taken on financial grounds and had been taken while Robbins was still sitting. With a General Election just round the corner, the denial of opportunity to qualified applicants was just the publicity the Government did not want. When I asked Edward Heath when he paid a visit to the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) much later why the Government had accepted Robbins’ expansion figures so readily on publication he simply answered ‘We had no choice’ (Shattock, M L Making Policy in British Higher Education 1945-2011  McGraw-Hill/Open University Press 2012 p 121).

It is correct to say that Robbins did not sort out student finance (para 3). In 1963, however, just before a General Election, the Government was desperate to erase the impact of the decision it had taken in the previous year. Treasury files in the National Archive show that in drafting its evidence to Robbins, Treasury officials were very conscious of the likely future costs of the expansion and considered tuition fees, student loans, two-year degrees and greater use of part-time education as ways of ameliorating costs. It is hard to see why Robbins committed himself to a view that the growth in the economy would cover the expansion costs when forecast GDP growth in the Treasury evidence to the Committee was only around 2.5%. The actual cabinet paper recommending the acceptance of the ‘Robbins principle’ and the consequent student number forecasts suggested that GDP growth would be 4% (Memorandum by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General C (63) 173 para 8). This eased the passage through the Cabinet but overrode Treasury calculations. One cannot escape the suspicion that Robbins and the Government had agreed well before the Report was drafted that the expansion would be fully funded without any caveats as to fees, loans, part-time or shorter degrees as these would certainly have reduced the public welcome for the acceptance of Robbins’ estimates.

 Although the Robbins Report covered Great Britain and not the UK, Stirling (para 5) was not the only new UK university founded in the aftermath of the Report. Carswell, who is quoted, appears to have forgotten the New University of Ulster at Coleraine.

Even before the 1973 Oil Crisis, when the UGC was forced to abandon all capital support for universities for a period, the UGC suspended capital spending on residences (para 6). It was heavily influenced by Charles Carter, Vice-Chancellor at Lancaster and an economist, who demonstrated that you could build a student residence block within a privately financed mortgage envelope (the model student residence had subsequently to be pulled down because it was too economical—the facilities proved to be far too spartan for students). But this opened up a mortgage route for funding residences through building societies and banks which most pre-92 universities took. The polytechnics were not able to do this because they were locked into local authority financial systems; moreover their student recruitment at that time was predominately local. (Where polytechnics took over teacher training colleges, which were mostly strongly residential, they inherited what were often their first residential provision.)  After 1992, when they obtained freedom to borrow, there was a tendency to concentrate on using their borrowing freedoms to support campus consolidation or remedy backlog maintenance which had been allowed to build up under local authority control. The real shortfalls in residential provision thus occurs among the post-92 universities; pre-92 universities are much better endowed.  I’m not sure Robbins would have welcomed private sector PBSA, which has largely been utilised by the post-92s–universities do not necessarily have control of the management of the residences or, more significantly, their rental levels.  Pre-92s with a large swathe of self-financed residences funded by mortgages should be able to present a much lower rental package than post-92s; the post-92s are historically disadvantaged over residential provision.

Para 7 rather conflates an important Whitehall debate about Departmental responsibility for higher education which was carried on within the Robbins Committee and within Whitehall itself. It still has relevance today. The main arguments were as follows:

  1. The Treasury’s position was made anomalous by its formal assumption of the control of public expenditure conferred on it by the Plowden Report (1961)—there was an obvious conflict of interest between its position vis a vis other Whitehall departments and being itself responsible for the direct funding of higher education. In addition, though it was never publicly referred to, the Treasury had the guilty secret that it had heavily overspent on the clearing of the site to enable the expansion of Imperial College which would inevitably have caught the eye of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
  2. But the Treasury had deep reservations about the suitability of control by the Ministry of Education. Partly this reflected doubts about the quality of the Ministry—Mrs Thatcher was later to give voice to these—but it was also to do with its style—the Treasury thought (and how right it was!) it would reduce university autonomy by bureaucratic intervention.
  3. On the other hand there was a strong socially based argument for education being treated as ‘a seamless robe,’ the grounds for the Shearman  note of reservation to the Robbins Report.
  4. From a technical policy point of view, it was argued that higher education must have a voice at the Cabinet table—particularly necessary in the light of the financial implication of the student number expansion being planned for.
  5. It was notable that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals was itself split on the issue but that a speech in the Lords by Lord James, ex-head of Manchester Grammar School and Vice-Chancellor of York, in favour of higher education going into the Ministry, was said to be very influential within Whitehall.

The Committee held what I believe was its only private unminuted, or at least unpublished, discussion on this topic but its eventual proposal of a separate Ministry did not carry conviction. The Government took the decision to reject the separate Ministry idea but included a compromise, proposed by the Cabinet Secretary, to give the new Department of Education and Science (DES) a second permanent secretary for HE. This was swept away with the arrival of the Wilson Government.

The Policy Note could have given more prominence in its Conclusions to the fall in the unit of resource in the 1980s  which marked the end of Robbins’ direct influence on policy. The Robbins student number forecasts were followed by a predicted demographic-led decline in the numbers of 18-year olds, which led the Treasury to argue for a policy of ‘tunnelling through the hump’ for all affected public services. In higher education, this amounted to resisting funding for a predicted temporary growth in numbers which would not be sustained. This lay behind Keith Joseph’s unfortunate 1985 Green Paper The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s, which mistakenly took no account of the increasing age participation rate which more than compensated for the falls in demography. Ken Baker, his successor, anxious to paint a more positive picture, promised to raise participation rates to 30% and ‘to put a time bomb under the Treasury’ (Shattock ibid p.152). He failed abjectly in securing Treasury support (see the account of his encounter with the Treasury in John Major’s The Autobiography 1999 p.103). This made him popular until it was recognised that he had entirely uncoupled student numbers from financial support. This failure to bite the bullet was to be the leitmotif of the Dearing review in 1997 and of subsequent attempts to provide a secure funding base for expanding student numbers and remains with us today.

When all is said and done I think that the Robbins Report should be remembered primarily for two things:

  1. The establishment of ‘the Robbins principle’ which so far no government has chosen to challenge but which seems to be in the back of the present Government’s mind.
  2. The establishment of the role of statistics in the formulation of policy and of a secure set of higher education data available to all. In this it provided a model for the rest of Europe and justifies the claim that it is one of the great social documents of the last century.

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