Bringing up Robbins

Almost exactly 50 years ago saw the publication of the Report of the Committee Appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins – the slightly unwieldy title of what became known as the Robbins Report, the most extensive review of higher education ever conducted in these islands. The report set out four aims of higher education: (i) instruction in skills, (ii) promoting the ‘general powers of the mind’, (iii) the advancement of learning, and (iv) the ‘transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. The report also set out guiding principles, including the principle that ‘higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’

The report had a huge impact and influenced the course of British higher education (and perhaps that in other countries) for the next few decades. And now, 50 years later, the current English Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, has written a pamphlet (published by the Social Market Foundation) reflecting on Robbins and looking at how, in the light of the principles of that report, the university system should now develop. In doing so Willetts embraces what he regards as some key themes of Robbins: the expansion of higher education; the importance of teaching (he believes it needs to be moved centre stage, partly through the better use of technology); the avoidance of inappropriate specialisation; and the development of effective funding models (he believes the UK government has got this right).

It is possible to argue with the Minister’s conclusions while still admiring his willingness to engage in this debate. Fifty years after Robbins, it is indeed time to look again at where higher education should go.

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One Comment on “Bringing up Robbins”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    David Willetts’s pamphlet makes for an interesting read indeed, occasionally amusing, often inadvertently ironic. The irony is particularly evident in the following passages when, having criticized the Robbins’s report because ‘he did not think through the implication of his own expansion plans for the balance of teaching and research’ Willetts writes:

    Universities have focused primarily on research because that is where the funding and prestige came from, and where the competition was strongest. Research is a vital function for our universities. We can indeed be very proud of the extraordinary amount of high-quality research which is produced by our £4.6 billion cash-protected science and research budget. No other country gets such a return. One reason for this exceptional performance is that over the past twenty years
    the academic community and governments have created very
    strong competitive funding for research which drives such excellent performance across a breadth of disciplines. However there was no matching incentive to focus on teaching (p.38)

    only to add on p. 49:
    “Looking back we will wonder how the higher education system
    was ever allowed to become so lopsided away from teaching”.

    One cannot really understand the reasons for the Minister’s wonder since an explanation had been offered only a few pages earlier, i.e. the competitive funding and, one should add, at least thirty years of policy incentives! Such forgetfulness is hard to justify, maybe Mr Willett shares Nietzsche’s belief that ”life in any true sense is impossible without forgetfulness”?

    Another ironic moment regards the following passage when we are reminded that:

    Students aren’t merely buying a degree, as they might
    a holiday. They are engaging in something inherently worthwhile
    and also investing in their future. 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. (p.37)

    It sounds somewhat reassuring (albeit so blatantly obvious that no reassurance should be needed) that the current English Minister for Universities and Science does not equate buying a degree with buying a holiday, and yet it is today’s news that universities will face Office of Fair Trading review
    education is thus confirmed as a commodity just like any other, undergoing the same degree (and methodology) of scrutiny.
    In the same passage above Mr Willetts lucidly acknowledges the *paradoxical* nature of his own strategy which is supposed to make a degree ‘inherently’ worthwhile and to bring back focus on teaching by ‘unleashing the forces of consumerism’, those same forces which have given research the competitive edge in the first place!
    Of course Mr Willetts’s willingness to engage with the debate regarding the future of HE is very welcome given his role as Minister for Universities and Science, it would be a true cause for admiration though if he could address today’s challenges without reaffirming the paradoxes of a consumerist ideological dogma.

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