Robbins: Bigger, better and uncut?

Robbins (1963) is the Higher Education report every other report dreams it could be. A Critical Path, for instance, tried to be Robbins so much that it looked painful.

But time and again, reports have been roundly derided, or quietly forgotten,as Robbins marches on unbowed. So David Willetts and a whole team of helper elves have decided to take the simpler path of re-writing Robbins to make it seem like he’d actually written a more erudite early-60s Browne Review.

The headlines are the Minister’s sudden discovery that research funding competitions skew university priorities, the mood music is that Lord Robbins properly wanted income contingent loan repayments, but decided at the last minute to double government spending on Higher Education over 10 years.

One submission to the Robbins review, by AR Prest, recommended income contingent repayment of student fees, and from this kernel, a whole organism is grown concerning Robbins marching arm-in-arm with Nick Clegg to demand fees of up to £9,000 a year for all students. All this for a man who clearly states

“Loans to students would be on rather a different footing, for it is not to be supposed that they could be financed directly from the capital market.” (para 638)

“Borrowing [to finance loans] at a time of inflation might increase the pressure on resources, whereas suitably devised taxation might be neutral, or even some restraint. Borrowing in a depression might tend to a reversal of the tendency, whereas taxation might deepen it. There are so many possibilities to be considered that it is difficult to achieve any simple generalisation. The one thing that is certain is that the loan method per se must impose exactly the same current use of resources as the revenue method.” (para 639)

It is fair to note, and the LSE blog does so in typically thoughtful style, that Robbins did not make any recommendations on funding that have stood the test of time. But this is not a failing of Robbins, a serious economist and proto-monetarist (he appointed Hayek to the LSE, after all) who had learned by bitter experience to accept the need for state funding and intervention for public good. (As did Milton Friedman regarding HE for that matter, but this is maybe a story for another day). Funding was not within his remit, and had already been covered by the 1962 Education Act which laid out a common expectation for student support from local authorities.

But Willett’s portrayal is of Robbins as a naive statist is as convincing of his citation of a tweet from Andreas Schleicher as proof of OECD blessing for our “sustainable” current funding model.

Willetts cites a lecture Robbins gave at Harvard in the mid 60s:

“I have little doubt that, as time goes on and the advantages of higher education are more generally perceived, and the burdens of financing its expansion are more severely felt, there may easily come a change in attitudes such that the equitable arguments for a considerable replacement of grants by loans will become practically relevant.”

For clarity – Robbins here is talking about replacing maintenance grants with maintenance loans, and merely suggests that the attitudes amongst governments will change. Robbins was remarkably prescient about the future shape of HE, but he didn’t anticipate the decade of underfunding brought about by the Thatcher generation.

However in “Higher Education Revisited”, at the age of 82 in 1980:

“It is a matter of regret to me, personally, that I did not at the time sufficiently appreciate the advantages of the Prest scheme, in spite of the fact it had already been promulgated. My own inclination tended definitely against the policy of subsidy”

You will note, of course, that he still stops short of wishing he had recommended it.

More surprisingly, Willetts claims that “[..] taxpayers still pay 40 percent of the cost of degrees” (p61). Behind this soft statement lies a realm of equivocation. 40% may be true this year, but the aim of the new system of funding is to reduce this to less than 20%. And the estimated and *seriously* unsustainable¬†RAB cost¬†of fee loans (currently 35% and rising) is clearly not included.

Charmingly Willetts is able to provide data and metrics to suggest that Robbins was right all along in various assumptions around participation and graduate benefit. As Willetts was able to provide data and metrics to justify his own flawed policies too, I think they can be safely ignored.

But the funereal micturation continues in the conclusion. From one quotation from the original report

“We think it likely that television, as a technique of educational communication, may be found to have considerable potential value as an ancillary both for part-time and correspondence study.” (para 821)

Robbins is outed as a M**C-lover! The same over-egged claims we’ve heard from BIS at so many events over this year are justified, inexplicably, from Robbins. His point regarding televison was as an “ancillary” to new forms of study, not as a rolling tsunami of disruption against traditional institution.

Willetts tries to make Robbins learn from the work of his goverment. But Willetts could learn far more from the work of Robbins, not least in designing a sustainable system of mass higher education that lasted, broadly unchanged, until 2010.

And that, erstwhile report writers, is how you get your report remembered. Do something that works for nearly half-a-century, and recommend sustained investment in higher education.

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