13 DECEMBER 1963, Page 7


WHAT is astonishing about the Robbins recom- mendation for a new Ministry of Arts and Science is that it is made so firmly, yet justified by so little effective argument. The main alternative solution, which is broadly the concentration of responsibility for all stages of education in a single Ministry, is backed by the most cogent arguments in paragraphs 773-777 of the report. These are then dismissed in a section which is surprisingly vague. There are four main points:

(1) That the whole field, from primary schools to universities, is too wide for a single Ministry; (2) That the problems of higher education are quite different in kind from those of the schools, and that the co-ordination of autono- mous institutions through a Grants Committee requires a very special 'feeling for the reins' and special administrative techniques; (3) That, since research is at least as impor- tant in universities as is teaching, they have a closer 'organic connection' with the other re- search institutions than with the schools and should share Ministerial responsibility; (4) Most important of all, that the interests of the autonomous institutions must be safe- guarded by having their own Minister who, 'in the event of conflict,' could argue for them in Cabinet or in Cabinet committees.

Only the first two contentions have much sub- stance, and they are far from being conclusive. The report admits that the merging in the Ministry of Education of the Treasury's func- tions in respect of the UGC would not make the Ministry unwieldy. Nor is it contended that a single Ministry could not cope with the adminis- trative tasks involved in responsibility for the whole field of education.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the Robbins Committee have lacked the courage to say what they really believe. Reading between the lines of their evasive circumlocutions, one senses a deep conviction that education is not -----as Mr. Shearman calls it in his minority report —a `coherent whole . . . one and indivisible.' They believe that universities really are some- thing utterly and entirely different from schools, and that a clear line should be drawn between them.

At this point the committee seem to have realised -that they were arguing in circles. They reject the Miriistry of Education because it is feared that the interests of the universities will be submerged. But they also reject the Lord President of the Council—despite the affinities of his responsibilities for research—because his office is too small. In an endeavour to create something of about the right size, they give the job' in effect to the Lord President (in his capacity of Minister for Science) and throw in art galleries and museums as a makeweight.

This solution simply will not stand up to serious scrutiny. It entirely fails to meet the committee's desire for a powerful and effective sponsor, for the proposed department could never be large enough to carry much weight. Nor is the research argument a good one. Indeed, para- graph 781 of the report is delightfully naive. The key sentence reads: `Research, interpreted in 'a large sense, has parity of importance with teach- ing; indeed, the latter loses vitality if the former is absent.' One has only to make the (perfectly legitimate) transposition of the two words 're- search' and 'teaching' to get an argument that leads almost irresistibly to placing the responsi-

bility for universities with the Ministry of Education.

There may be a case for a Ministry of Science and Technology, but it is very doubtful whether the universities would be well served under such an umbrella. It is even possible to doubt whether it would be good for research to put the uni- versities and the research councils under the same Ministry. Certainly there is much co- operation between them; but the fact remains that at present there are alternative sources of gov- ernment finance open to the scientific research worker who wants a grant. Would it really be in his interest to put both sources on the same vote?

The report seems to imply that the Treasury Ministers and civil servants, under whom it is conceded that the universities have fared `reasonably well,' are somehow unique in having had the delicate task of helping to finance autonomous institutions without imperilling their freedom. But, of course, there are several other departments (including Education) that have managed to grant-aid autonomous voluntary bodies and local authorities simultaneously and without schizophrenia.

Even less impressive is the argument that `whereas with a single Ministry, in the event of conflict, the right of appeal would be only within the walls of the department, with two Ministers it would reach the Cabinet or at least a Cabinet committee.' In fact, of course, any major issue of principle likely to cause a public stir would almost certainly be discussed at Cabinet level anyway. But the most extraordinary thing about the Robbins statement is that it appears to assume that the main—if not the only—'conflict' in claims for resources would be between higher education and the schools.

But, of course, the real `conflict' would not be with the Ministry of Education, but with the Treasury, to say nothing of the other depart- ments seeking money and building resources for houses, hospitals, offices, airfields and married quarters. And if the universities have any sense, they would be anxious to make common cause against these competitors with all the other edu- cationists (who form a pretty powerful pressure group); and to be represented in Cabinet by a strong departmental Minister. If Ministers for different kinds of education are going to argue against each other in Cabinet, they may both end by getting less.

Yet the Robbins Committee, in order to avoid dangers that are largely chimerical, have come up with a solution which would probably make the situation worse than it is now. A compli- cated system of interlocking committees is pro- posed to cope with the difficulties that would' arise from putting education under three separate Ministries (since the Scottish Office is heavily involved).

Finally, even the museums and art galleries would not make the proposed new Ministry a full:dine job for a first-class Minister. It would fall either to a man with little influence or to someone who would be horribly tempted to try to `make something of it' by interfering with the UGC.

Now, when the Robbins arguments against the Ministry of Education are reduced to their proper proportions, those in its favour become so much weightier as to be irresistible. In the first

place, it avoids the necessity of drawing too rigidly a demarcation line which is much more awkward than the Robbins Committee have been prepared to admit. It is rightly proposed that the Colleges of Advanced Technology should become autonomous universities grant-aided by the UGC. But some of them have very sensibly retained informal—and even organisational—links with neighbouring regional or area colleges, which it would be a pity to break or weaken.

It seems sensible to let the Ministry of Edu- cation, which created and built up the CATs, help to smooth their transition to a new status. There is also everything to be said for putting CATs, area and regional colleges and other developing technological institutions under the same general umbrella.

Most important of all, the Ministry of Edu- cation is far better qualified and equipped to undertake a massive expansion operation than any small new department could possibly be. It has made a remarkable job of coping with the expansion of primary and secondary education, and Robbins is loud in praise of its achievements with the CATs. Moreover, it has a long experience of dealing with a very great variety of institutions by very varied methods— including direct grants to many private bodies.

It is perfectly capable of absorbing responsi- bility for the UGC, however much enlarged, and of taking over the Treasury officials connected with it. In addition, it is accustomed to close co-operation with the Scottish Office.

It has a long tradition of efficient and tactful devolution and delegation of powers. It has a much better basis than any new department could have for building up the research, statistical and public relations effort that the expansion of higher education will require. Above all, the direct contacts between officials which belong- ing to the same department would promote would surely help to smooth the relationship between schools, further and higher education at the points of contact. After all, it is futile to ignore the facts that teachers from training colleges and universities are going to work in schools, and that university entrance require- ments do affect school curricula.

Yet these arguments tend rather to deepen than to alleviate the fears of university teachers.

`You wouldn't mention them unless, you wanted

to change the universities,' they say. But, of course, the universities are going to have to

change. The need is to make it as easy as pos- sible for them to change themselves in friendly collaboration with other educationists.

Of course, universities and university teachers are 'different.' But perhaps they are not quite so different as they think. At any rate, the distin- guished university graduates who administer the Ministry of Education have a 'pretty fair idea of what it is all about.

In my view, then, responsibility for higher education and for the UGC should go to the Minister of Education, whether or not he is called a Secretary of State. He should be given two Ministers of State, with a considerable measure of devolution of work and responsibility to them. He should take over, as far as possible, the Treasury officials who have worked with the UGC.

Then, I believe, the universities and their new sister institutions would be more powerfully pro- tected and represented,' as well as more sym- pathetically aided, than they would be under a small new department. In addition, they would become an integral part of the most exciting movement of educational advance that our his- tory has ever known.