Willetts on Robbins – Yesterday, today and tomorrow

Fifty years ago the Robbins Report proposed massive expansion of higher education in the United Kingdom – up to 300% over the next two decades. In a report on Robbins, current Universities Minister David Willetts calculates that with British births on the rise again, university places for new entrants will need to rise by another 25% by 2035.

Looking at the number of would-be higher education students who reapply for university after a first rejection, there was unmet demand today of around 50,000 students, Willetts found. Increasing this figure in line with expected demographic change to 2035 would mean the 368,000 current places for first-year students would need to rise to 460,000 entrants.

Willetts authored a report, titled Robbins Revisited: Bigger and better higher education, published by the Social Market Foundation on the 50th anniversary of the hugely influential report of a committee led by Lord Lionel Robbins in October 1963.

The Robbins report argued that higher education had to be significantly expanded, by up to 300% over the next two decades, and provided the rationale for growth from an elite to a mass system.

In the foreword Lord Moser – one of the few survivors of the team that produced the Robbins Report – writes that it “changed the whole tone of public discussion on higher education. Until then, universities had really been a non-subject”.

Means advocated by Robbins to make possible massive expansion, already underway when the report was published, were a national student support system, a national application system and establishing new universities.

The centralised admission system UCAS, first used in 1964 on a voluntary basis, was handling 600,000 applications by 1968 and in 2012 processed 2.6 million applications from 650,000 candidates.

Thus, at an early stage, the United Kingdom achieved countrywide recruitment to autonomous universities with a national support system – a robust system also catering for international students and with, until recently, low fees.

Is 25% growth feasible?

University World News spoke to Professor Michael Shattock, who holds a visiting chair at the Institute of Education, University of London. He recently ran a conference at the institute titled “Celebrating Robbins: The impact of Robbins on British higher education 1963-2013”, and David Willetts gave the opening address.

“It is worth saying to begin with that it's most unusual for a British minister to be writing pamphlets and taking such a full part in an academic conference as he did yesterday – we have not had a minister of higher education do that for many years and it is very welcome.”

Shattock thought growth in student entrant numbers of 25% in the next two decades was feasible.

“The demography points in that direction – our birth rate is due to rise unlike the rest of Europe – and the age participation rate is nationally around 43% with some parts of the country much higher.

“Moreover, we have a system of financing higher education which is much less dependent on public finance than in many countries, which means that institutions can be more flexible in their response,” said Shattock.

“I suppose the big question is whether higher education will have changed within 15 to 20 years to match changes in the external environment. My guess is that it will. I doubt whether MOOCs [massive open online courses] will take over but they will certainly have an impact and may be blended with traditional university teaching.

“If the economy is to expand we certainly need more graduate-educated people but we must also not ignore the recent OECD findings about the serious educational failings of the bottom 25%.”


Willetts argues that there is now an imbalance between the time academics in older universities commit to teaching versus research, and that “pre-Robbins universities appear to be more focused on research now than at any other time”.

The ratio at older universities is 40:60 in favour of research, against a national average of 69:31 and a ratio of 89:11 at new universities and former polytechnics. At the time of Robbins, universities reported a teaching: research split of 55:45. By the mid to late 1980s this split had developed to 64:34 in favour of teaching.

The minister writes that prestige and reward for research are eroding commitment to teaching, and that teaching at universities needs to regain prestige and attention – there has to be a “cultural change”. He discusses how MOOCs might enable this change.

Shattock was “a little sceptical of the calculations of teaching load and comparisons over time, on methodological grounds. British universities are undoubtedly put under pressure by the research assessment exercise, particularly in research-intensive universities where the competition is intense.

“However, student surveys do not suggest any great sense of dissatisfaction among students except in isolated cases. The research-intensive universities attract on the whole the best academically qualified students and they seem to flourish in universities which reflect research in their teaching.

“There's nothing wrong with beating the drum for teaching but I don't think we are looking at revolutionary change,” said Shattock.

The Robbins principle

Before Robbins, the UK system was characterised as being “messy and uncoordinated, with a lack of clarity over the status of and relationships between universities, colleges of advanced technology, colleges of education, regional colleges and others”. The Robbins Report was to lead to a change in this.

Robbins’ first message, later to be labelled the ‘Robbins principle’, was that “courses in higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”.

Robbins revisited says that the world is now having its ‘Robbins moment’, with many developing countries having the ambition to expand the number of students “and at great pace”. They are likely to face the same challenges as the UK faced post-Robbins.

At the heart of Robbins’ thinking was how to have more equal attainment levels among different social groups, tapping UK talent better. He estimated that 45% of children with fathers in the ‘high professional’ category, against 4% of those with fathers in ‘skilled manual’ work were attending universities and colleges in1960.

Data shows that gaps in higher education between socio-economic classes remain, and Shattock believes it is possible to close them. “The higher education funding council has just issued a report which highlights the variation in the participation rate around different regions.

“There is ample scope for special measures to be used in low participation rate areas – this is important for social and economic needs."

In conclusion, Willetts refers to debate over specialisation versus breadth in degrees, and suggests a revival of ‘liberal arts’ degrees in Britain.

He also mounts a defence of student loans to pay for higher education fees, and writes that Robbins had toyed with this idea but abandoned it because he felt positive attitudes to higher education might not have been sufficiently widespread. “Looking back, he increasingly came to regret his caution.”

“Eventually after over 40 years, we have ended up with a financing model very close to the one Robbins really preferred. One might conclude that on this issue all three main political parties whilst in government have followed the logic of the remark attributed to Churchill about Americans, that they eventually do the right thing, but only having exhausted every other possibility.”