Fifty years ago this autumn the Robbins report on higher education in the United Kingdom was published. It was, and still is, the greatest report on higher education – by some way.
It stands in a kind of grand Apostolic succession from the 19th century 'blue books', those pioneering enquiries into social conditions undertaken in Victorian Britain which have a just claim to being regarded as the founding texts of empirical social science – and, incidentally, provided much of the raw material out of which Karl Marx fashioned Capital during long hours in the British Museum Reading Room.
The report led by Lord Lionel Robbins also stands comparison with other fundamental interventions in the development of higher education in other countries in the 1960s. The California 'Master Plan' and Edgar Faure's reconstruction of universities in France come to mind.
When Robbins was published the UK had an elite system dominated by universities, in particular by Oxford and Cambridge and the civic universities founded in the 19th century, although the so-called 'red bricks' established between the two world wars and the first wave of 'new universities' were emerging fast. There were only a quarter of a million students.
Half a century later the UK system is unambiguously a mass system enrolling more than 2.5 million students. It is one of Europe's big four that have broken the two-million barrier, the others being France, Germany and (surprisingly perhaps) Poland.
The system is still dominated by multi-faculty universities, as Robbins had foreseen. What the committee could never have foreseen is the sheer variety of these universities, which are quite unlike those of 50 years ago. There are many more of them, including the former polytechnics 'promoted' a generation ago. Yet Robbins provided the catalyst for this transformation.
Once a committee of the 'great and good' presided over by Keynes' great liberal (we would probably say neo-liberal) rival as an economist had endorsed the need for university expansion, the cries of 'more means worse' died away.
Shortly before he died I interviewed Robbins and asked why he, a member of the recently discovered 'establishment' and a right-wing economist into the bargain, had nevertheless endorsed such a progressive, even rather leftist, project.
He replied by saying he had been most influenced by a remark of another London School of Economics titan, RH Tawney, that "you could never overestimate how much America had benefited from the fact that so many of her people had had at least the smell of a higher education".
So Robbins had no regret about the expansion his report had unleashed. The current universities minister in England, David Willetts, best described as a liberal Tory, has just published a pamphlet to mark the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report – and, like Robbins, he espouses expansion.
Perhaps rather surprisingly for a minister in a government that is seen as no friend of higher education, and has recently imposed a three-fold increase in tuition fees, Willetts argues not that 'more means worse' but that 'more means better' (although adding crucially that 'more must mean different' too).
For those – like me – who feared that a combination of financial imperatives and ideological prejudices would push the government down the road of contraction, Willetts' pamphlet is welcome reassurance – although there must be doubts about whether it is even a semi-firm indication of official policy and not just an intellectual jeu d'esprit.
Two other themes are taken up by Willetts.
The first is that universities in England must pay more attention to teaching – perhaps, more bluntly, that they must teach their students more.
He points out that the universities of half a century ago devoted 60% of their effort to teaching and 40% to research. In the same universities today the proportions are reversed; more effort is devoted to research than to teaching.
Yet over the intervening years teaching has become a more demanding professional responsibility, courses and curricula have become more complex and students have become more heterogeneous – according to almost every dimension: origins, preparation, aspirations – even in elite universities.
Something seems to be wrong – and, Willetts argues, must be put right.
Students as ‘customers’
He does so because of his second theme; that following the government's reforms – of which much higher fees is the centrepiece – students are now 'customers' who must be 'satisfied'.
Although not a conception Robbins himself would have welcomed, it is rapidly becoming common ground in the 21st century. Governments of the left may baulk at fees, but they still agree that students must be treated as, if not paying 'customers', at any rate key stakeholders. Here Willetts is occupying the political mainstream.
In recent speeches, and interviews to publicise his pamphlet, he has argued that Robbins toyed with the idea of introducing fees. When the report was published higher education was free, as it remains in Scotland.
Maybe he did. But what he did not contemplate was the erosion of a public system of higher education, devoted to common goals and the public good as much as boosting the future earnings of its graduates (hedge-fund managers, of course, had yet to be invented).
Privatisation would have filled him with horror. After endorsing expansion, Robbins' greatest achievement was to recommend that there should be a public system of higher education, with equal emphasis on both words, 'public' and 'system'.
It is far from clear that Willetts and his colleagues share that commitment. Cost-sharing for them is not a cruel necessity but a welcome opportunity.
The Robbins report was published at a time of exceptional solidarity bred by the bitter experiences of depression and world war. The desire to build a 'New Jerusalem' was very widely shared – and much expanded opportunities for higher education were a key element in this imagining of a more hopeful future.
How different things feel today – tax revolts, gated communities, increasing social divisions, growing inequality, debt-fuelled consumerism, dark fears of 'scroungers' at home and immigrants or refugees from abroad.
Truly the past is a foreign country, to which we can only hope to return. Embedded as it is in society, higher education too is infected by the same fearfulness.
* Peter Scott is professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, University of London.
* David Willetts, Robbins Revisited: Bigger and better higher education. Social Market Foundation, October 2013.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters