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Rewriting Robbins

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In a recent pamphlet published by the Social Market Foundation, Revisiting Robbins: Bigger and Better Higher Education, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, addresses the Robbins Report of 1963 and its significance today in the light of the changes to higher education he has himself inaugurated. However, the pamphlet is not so much an attempt to recuperate Robbins as an attempt to recuperate his own reputation as presiding over an ill thought out and divisive policy.

After all, as Lord Moser (a member of the original team that produced the Robbins Report) states in the introduction to the pamphlet, one of the strengths of the Robbins Report was that it was so firmly evidence-based. This was in stark contrast to the Browne Review of 2010 and the subsequent White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, of 2011, from which the recent changes inaugurated by the Minister derive.

They also lacked a broad engagement with the wider values of higher education that animated the Robbins Report, and were restricted to a narrow conception of it as a private investment in human capital and as contributing to economic growth. Neither they, nor the presiding Minister, endorsed the Robbins axiom that, ‘courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’ In the present pamphlet, this is an axiom that the Minister now represents as putting the individual student at the centre. This may have some truth, but it was not the student as a ‘consumer’ as the Minister seems to imply.

Nor did the Browne Report, or the subsequent White Paper, endorse the three other benefits set out by Robbins (alongside the utilitarian principle that was uppermost in the minds of the Browne Report). These included the public value of higher education in producing ‘cultivated’ men and women, the value of securing the advancement of learning through the combination of teaching and research, and the value of providing a common culture and standards of citizenship.
Finally, unlike the Robbins Report that sought to mitigate the inherited stratification and hierarchy among institutions, the recent changes are designed to create hierarchy and reinforce divisions. This involves market competition and the support of for-profit higher education, which were not part of the Robbins agenda.

Indeed, the concern to mitigate hierarchy on the part of Robbins should be placed in the context of wider reforms to secondary education that were also taking place. These sought to reduce the social stratification expressed in the division between public and private fee-paying education and in the different types of publicly-funded schools. The present government is reinforcing these hierarchies at all levels and now reinforcing the connection between private secondary education and ‘selective’ universities.

In the present pamphlet, the Minister might appear to make a volte face. He writes that, Robbins ‘is in no doubt that study at this level is inherently worthwhile – a belief which remains true today whether the subject is history or particle physics. He sees higher education as part of a wider education for citizenship. This is also as true today as it was then.’ (pages 17-18) The Minister also endorses a further expansion of higher education and argues that, in the past, this has not reduced the returns to individual graduates or the public benefit in terms of wider economic performance: ‘Remarkably, the demand for graduates has kept broadly in line with the supply of graduates, and individuals and the economy have both benefited financially as a result’ (page 19).

And yet, and yet …

The minister quickly goes on to suggest that it is possible to get more fine-grained data on returns at the level of University attended and course undertaken. To what end? The intention is to use it to put pressure on fee-levels and also to differentiate among students in the terms of their loans. These are measures that will operate alongside the removal of a direct subsidy to non-STEM subjects to mean that history is, indeed, treated differently than particle physics. It will also ensure the separation from research and teaching in non-STEM subjects at the majority of institutions, a separation that Robbins argued was damaging both for academics and students alike. In fact, the Minister makes the argument that the expansion of higher education after Robbins and the disproportionate number of students studying non-Stem subjects suggests that there is too much research in those areas.

The Minister also seems to have forgotten his discussion of getting fine-grained course-specific information on graduate incomes when he argues towards the end of the pamphlet for the virtues of income-contingent loans. It is likely that Robbins might have supported them had they been proposed at the time of the report. However, it is unlikely that he would have argued that direct public funding of undergraduate courses should be removed for non-STEM subjects. The justification of the ‘graduate pays’ is based on the private benefit of higher education, but Robbins recognised other public benefits. It was only the Browne Report and the subsequent White Paper that failed to acknowledge those benefits precisely because they suggest that they should be supported by public funds and not left as the indirect consequence of private interest.

It is also the case that the Minister regards the current version of loans as too expensive and, therefore limiting the expansion of student numbers. The intention is to alter the loan system in order that they reflect the prospective future earnings of graduates (future predictions of which Robbins believed to be unreliable). In this way, it would be possible to identify those students and courses likely to meet the income threshold for repayment and those that do not, in order both to alter the nature of the loans offered to different types of students and to put pressure on courses where graduate incomes are insufficiently high. Whereas Robbins witnessed a secular decline in the range of income inequality (through to the 1980s), the Minister (and his Government) endorses widening income inequalities and is re-fashioning higher education as an engine of inequality not its amelioration.

The Minister bemoans a previous absence of incentives for teaching, despite the interest in teaching being close to Robbins’ heart. In this context, though, the Minister has sought to introduce a competitive system of higher education in a manner at odds with Robbins own understanding of economic incentives and the nature of public goods. Thus, the Minister writes, ‘the paradox is that unleashing the forces of consumerism with more information for prospective students and funding following their choices is the best way of bringing back traditional academic focus on high-quality teaching’ (page 35).

The funding that should follow student choice is intended to operate in the context of wider fee differentials. For those institutions pressed to the Minister’s preferred £6000 student fee (and he is still devising measures to ensure that competition from for-profit providers will secure lower fees), students will pay more for their education than under the previous funding regime, while the institution will receive less funding per student. This is hardly a measure to improve teaching quality.

On the other hand, for those institutions that have expanded their student numbers (at the ABB margin) and have charged the higher fee, they receive more funding and are able to divert a higher proportion away from teaching. Most Vice Chancellors view the fees they can charge overseas students as close to the level of fee that they might charge all students. After all, a global higher education system would not recognise a difference between home and overseas students.

Does the Minister not understand the economic principle of the ‘margin’, where each additional student provides the same income for an institution while requiring little in terms of the commitment of additional teaching resource for each extra student recruited? When the fee cap is finally removed, students will not be paying more for a better education, but will be paying more for the benefits of education as a positional good in an increasingly polarised labour market (itself foreign to Robbins’ expectations).

Indeed, the argument that the time students spend studying for their degrees has fallen since Robbins is also somewhat disingenuous, if not dishonest. It does not take into account the fact that an increasing proportion of students must undertake part-time work in order to support their studies, following the cuts to grants and the restrictions on the amount available as loans to support living costs.

This misrepresentation is reinforced by the Minister’s use of TRAC data. The latter was designed to identify overhead costs associated with teaching and research in the context that this would enable their recovery from research funders. This was always likely to lead to an overstatement of research time and, therefore, the appearance that it was being partly subsidised by teaching income. Certainly, this is the assumption of the Wakeham Report of 2010 and its measures to scale back such overcharging.

Similar problems are evident in the way in which NSS scores are discussed by the Minister. Here, the fact that the overall score in 2012 for feedback at 72% satisfied is below that of the overall satisfaction at 85% is taken as an indication of an area for improvement rather than an artefact of composition. Nor does the Minister reflect upon the correlation between satisfaction scores for feedback and degree results; the fact that most universities operate modular systems where assessment is in the term in which the course is taken means that, by the time of the completion of the NSS, students have a fair idea of their likely final degree score. ‘Feedback’ is the only place where students can respond with reference to how their performance has been assessed. Ironically, just as Universities are, in effect, enjoined to ‘teach to the test’ by the emphasis placed on NSS scores, so the Minister goes on in the pamphlet to welcome their input to reduce this aspect in A-levels!

In the final substantive chapter of his pamphlet, the Minister extolls the Robbins Report’s commitment to institutional autonomy. Once again this is disingenuous. Of course, many academics dislike political interference enacted through audit measures and strictures upon funding agencies (such as the Impact Agenda), in both teaching and research. However, if successive governments have dismantled the protections that Robbins felt were necessary to protect the vitality of intellectual life, the replacement of political regulation by the market doesn’t represent a re-invigoration of autonomy.

The replacement of collegial autonomy, that Robbins favoured, with managerial hierarchy, began with the Jarratt Report of 1985, but it has become ever more accentuated. Indeed, in a moment beyond satire, Vice-Chancellors, have announced that they need to call themselves CEOs, because of the difficulty in communicating the substance of a University and what distinguishes it from any other business corporation.

It is hard to convey the degree of self-deception that characterises the Minister’s Pamphlet, but perhaps the following statement that concludes the chapter on universities and the machinery of government will suffice: ‘Now science, protected from interference by the Haldane Principle, is linked to universities, with the same minister responsible. And in the Business Department they are part of a culture which understands science is to be supported not directed. We are as close to Robbins’ vision for the machinery of Government as we have ever been’ (page 66).

The fact that the Chief Executives of our Research Councils and the Chief Executive Officers of our Universities remain silent in the face of such statements – and do nothing to defend the values truly espoused by Robbins – is the real indication of the extent to which state-directed marketization of our universities is a form of political interference that brooks no opposition. Properly revisiting Robbins is to discover the nakedness of our Emperor-Minister and the complicity of the courtiers.

  1. See chapter on higher education in ‘Education beyond the Coalition’ ed. P.Ainley and M.Allen being launched at Goldsmiths’ College 19/11. Also paper on ‘Robbins Remembered and Dismembered’ forthcoming in ‘Higher Education Quarterly’.

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