14 AUGUST 1964, Page 6


The Conservative Robbins

By JOHN VAIZEY Tan Robbins Report stands out as one of the most remarkable official documents published for many years. Its careful and detailed work may be questioned here and there, but the main drift of its argument can hardly be refuted. It was clearly meant to stand alongside the great nine- teenth-century blue books and it monumentally and successfully does.

It is easily forgotten that the Report was written at a time when the expansion of the universities had been slowed down by a govern- ment decision (which was followed by a motion of censure, moved in the Commons by Mr. Gaitslcell, and in the Lords by Lord Longford), and virtually no machinery existed for the co- ordination of the different sectors of higher education with each other and with the schools. The atmosphere in the last three years or so has changed. We are all expansionists now.

The Report emphasised that continuous ex- pansion of higher education was likely to be a permanent characteristic of a modern industrial society. This is now a commonplace, but a year or so ago it was not. Indeed, the consensus now is that the Report's estimates of the numbers likely to be in higher education in the 1970s are too low. The Robbins Report suggests 600,000 full-time students by the early 1980s. The Fabian Society's evidence to the Committee (which formed the basis of the Labour Party's study group under Lord Taylor) suggested a figure of over 700,000. My own judgment would be that 700,000 to 800,000 might easily be the total by the early 1980s. It is common knowledge that the statistics of the likely expansion repre- sented the lowest of the three estimates prepared for the Committee. It now seems as though the Report might more wisely have rested on the middle, or even the higher, range of estimates. This means that a total of eighty or so universities —or whatever title is given to groups of 10,000 or so students—will be in being by the 1980s. The Taylor Report was right in its forecast.

As the Robbins Committee took evidence, opinion in the country moved rapidly. Indeed, looking back on it, the process of taking evi- dence was itself an immensely important process of forming opinion. The notion of expansion (which at the outset was the private prerogative of the few who had studied the development of education) rapidly became the basic assumption of all but the most wilful obscuranaists. It is this which changed the general attitude towards the idea that a Government Department must assume responsibility for higher education as a whole. Despite the largely futile debate on one Minister or two (which the Government resolved by appointing three), the acceptance by all parties that a major Government Department was to be created is perhaps administratively the biggest change brought about as a result of the estab- lishment of the Robbins Committee. This inno- vation will probably do more to change higher education than anything else, because the Gov- ernment Department will inevitably now become a major source of ideas and new policies.

Increasingly a formal structure of administra- tion wilt' develop, and the liveliness of higher education, the preservation of academic freedom —and, indeed, its enlargement—will depend to a great extent upon the spirit in which the new administrative machinery is worked and the efficiency with which it is operated. The neW Schools Council, for example, could become a powerfully liberating influence in the sixth form. Sums of money running into many hun- dreds of millions of pounds cannot be adminis- tered secretly. Decisions affecting the whole education system must be publicly discussed. It is surprising, perhaps, how opinion has swung from an uncritical admiration of the University Grants Committee to a persistent grumbling at Its apparent amateurism and inefficiency.

The third profound change which has come about in the climate of opinion is the acceptance of the view that higher education is closelY related with the economy and with the schools. When the Robbins Committee was set up this view was very much a minority one. It is now the accepted point of departure for almost all of the discussions. As a result, perhaps, of this ohan.ge in attitude, some of what the Robbins Report said about universities and colleges has come to have a strangely old-fashioned ring.

Most people would now agree that the co- ordination of the work of universities, technical colleges and teacher training colleges is essen- tial to the efficient operation of each categorY of institution, and so to the adequate function- ing of the higher education system as a whole, yet looking back on it Robbins struck an uneasY compromise between what had gone before-4 virtual lack of machinery for co-ordination—and, the more radical schemes for a 'comprehensive system of higher education. Since what is tatigbt —and by whom—is what the whole thing Is about, this is a subject worth pursuing. The pattern of institutions which the Report adopted is subject to serious criticism. Its adore tion springs, one supposes, from the fact that they were seeking to straddle two contradictory positions. In the first place, despite what Is dearly set out in a number of paragraphs in the Report, the impression has become general that Robbins was in favour of the expansion of the universities, much on the present model of the seven new cathedral universities (that is, civic universities where the students wear gowns), With out asking too many questions as to the re*, nature and purpose of a university. Thus, it. la said, by setting up these institutions implicitlY as a model of an ideal university, and regardinf. the universities as the summit of the pyramid, they tended to assimilate other institutions to them. This is unfair, of course. The big nevi technical institutions—the SIS1ERS—areCyl dence to the contrary. Nevertheless, to take one instance in particw lar, they proposed to divide technical education In two by incorporating the Colleges of Ad- vanced Technology into the university sYs!eg./' and leaving the other colleges outside. This' now happening. They also proposed to JIWOr-: porate the teacher training colleges in the univer Sity system by the device of Schools of Ed?" cation. This has been interpreted—probabY infairly—as the creation of a two-tier system 1 vith no very good justification for the actual lie of division which was chosen. Furthermore, t may well be thought that the administrative ■ roposals for the incorporation of the training alleges into the university Schools of Education

■ aid too much attention to considerations of tatus and too little to practical problems. Is it ealised, for example, that the budget of the chool of Education may well be a quarter of ' t he annual budget of some universities and that a number of universities may well, have in their lidst large Roman Catholic colleges, at some


istance from the campus, which will be an ntegral part' of the university, teaching for its egrees and taking a full part in its policy- paking? This may be welcome or unwelcome,


int it has been little discussed.

The administrative structure proposed for a ery large higher education system (which, it lust be remembered, will develop alongside a arther education system probably, in total, not pitch smaller) may not support the weight of he burdens imposed on it. The Robbins Report lay polarise education into two extremes—uni- ersities at one end and local colleges at the ther—when what we want to do is to develop le middle range. Such questions have led arm people to doubt the educational philosophy hich underlies some of the recommendations in he Report.

What, then, has emerged from a second look t the Report? A general recognition of the Igh probability that the expansion of the higher ducation system, which has now been going on pr twenty years, is unlikely to slow down and rill probably accelerate. Most of the administra- ye proposals for a Government Department, 'ith a number of co-ordinating committees, pring from this. But to assume that major hanges in the institutions which are adminis- red by the new machinery will take place in the irection that is foreseen by the Report is some- ling else again. In particular, the apparent kelihood that the present university ideal is a iitable model for the whole range of people who re intent—and properly intent—upon vocational tidies is something which is open to question. is here that most legitimate doubts arise.