28 AUGUST 1964, Page 16

SIR,—Mr. Vaizey's latest article on the Robbins Report is like

a bulletin announcing a victory. Public opinion, he points out, is now increasingly on Lord Robbins's side, one may have a few 'legitimate' doubts about some of his recommenda- tions, but the general case for expansion which he advocates is now accepted without question. It is only opposed by a few 'wilful obscurantists.'

There is one objection to the Report, however, that Mr. Vaizey disregards and which is shared both by people who feel that our universities ought to expand and by others who are convinced that more means worse. The objection is, above all, to the Robbins Committee's methods of investigation.

We are told, for example, that universities should expand more rapidly than in the past and that they should cater for a wider variety of needs. What the Report doesn't point out is how much we need to know about how many different kinds of train- ing if we are to decide how many subjects and which subjects can be profitably taught in an academic institution. The work of accumulating and assimi- lating such knowledge would be immense. It would be even more so if the investigators were to calcu- late how many people there are likely to be at any one time who would want to study these subjects and who would be capable of doing so.

There are very few signs that this work has been done. In fact, the Report doesn't even begin to discuss the present demand for and availability of university places in different subjects, let alone the possible demand for places in subjects which are not yet academically taught. I think I am stating the obvious when I say that the case for expansion in university English departments is different from the case for expansion in Arabic or accountancy. Yet as far as the Report is concerned, both in its general argument and in its detailed statistical analysis, the case is exactly the same.

This is why some 'wilful obscurantists' are astounded by the confidence with which the Robbins Committee suggests that there should be 560,000 full- time students by 1980. It isn't that the figures are too high or too low. What is so staggering is the vague, highly conjectural way in which the figures have been reached, the consequent unreality of what hey *and &sr and, despite this, the immense ainhoiity'ividlivhich they are quoted.

I 'tun not, I hope, advocating an impossibly high standard of public investigation. In one subject, physics, inquiries of the kind which I believe are necessary have been carried out already by Dr. N. Thompson and Dr. R. G. Chambers of Bristol Uni- versity. The inquiries, based on questionnaires sent to physics departments throughout the country and to all students who had recently applied to read physics at Bristol, give precise information about the demand for and availability of places in physics, the wastage rate and the standards of entry. (The results of the survey can be read in a recent issue of The Bulletin of the Institute of Physics and the Physical Society.) Now that the 'clearing house' for university admissions has been set up, similar inves- tigations ought to be possible in other subjects. Unfortunately, Mr. Vaizey is probably right when he says that public opinion is on Lord Robbins's side. It would, after all, be a brave Prime Minister who decided that the work of his Committee ought to be done again.