Posts Tagged ‘‘From Beveridge to Blair: The First Fifty Years of Britain’s Welfare State 1948-98’’

The Robbins Report and the Expansion of University Education

March 16, 2016

The expansion of higher education and its extension to students from working class backgrounds was a policy that had its origins in a Conservative government. This was the Robbins Committee formed by Harold MacMillan’s government, which produced a report in 1963. This argued that higher education should be made available to everyone, who had the ability. They were assisted in this by the massive growth in secondary education, and the growing need for an educated class of technicians and workers for industry. The Labour party under Harold Wilson was also planning to found 40 new universities.

Sullivan, in his The Development of the British Welfare State, writes of this

Into this maelstrom of political activity, emerged the Robbins Report in October 1963. Its most important recommendation was that ‘courses in higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’ In effect, this was to mean two things. First, that all candidates with good enough A-level passes would be eligible (thus satisfying the ability criteria). Second, however, it meant that local authorities would be committed to funding all candidates accepted by higher education institutions. For the recommendations of the Anderson Committee that all students in higher education should be grant-aided had been implemented while the Robbins Committee was sitting.

The implications of the Robbins proposals were momentous. First, the report assumed a 50 per cent increase in the number of higher education students by 1967, turning into a 250 per cent rise by 1980. As the bulk of these were to be in universities, new universities would need to be built. As the need for technological development was recognised by the committee, the Colleges of Advanced Technology, (CATs) were to be translated into universities. (p. 148).

Among its conclusions, the Report stated ‘But we believe that it is highly misleading to suppose that one can determine an upper limit to the number of people who could benefit from higher education, given favourable circumstances.’

‘[J]ust as since the war more children have stayed on at school for a full secondary education, so in turn more of their children will come to demand higher education during the 1970s…’

‘This in itself is … no guarantee that the quality of students will be maintained if there is an increased entry. There is, however, impressive evidence that large numbers of able young people do not at present reach higher education….

‘The desire for education, leading to better performance at school, appears to be affecting the children of all classes and all abilities alike, and it is reasonable to suppose that this trend will continue…

Finally, it should be observed that fears that expansion would lead to a lowering of the average ability of students in higher education have proved unfounded. Recent increases in numbers have not been accompanied by an increase in wastage and the measured ability of students appears to be as high as ever.’

(From Margaret Jones and Rodney Lowe, From Beveridge to Blair: The First Fifty years of Britain’s Welfare State, 1948-98 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2002) 125).

It’s to SuperMac’s credit that his government did open up university to people from the working classes. Since Margaret Thatcher’s time, the Tories have increasingly wanted to shut it off to students from poorer backgrounds. Higher education has been privatised, funding cut, and student grants abolished. Instead they’ve been replaced with loans, which have escalated to exorbitant levels beyond the ability of many students to pay as free education has been abolished. Bliar’s government took the step of introducing tuition fees nearly a decade ago now, but it was Cameron’s coalition government that raised them to £9,000 a year. And many universities have been pressing for further increases.

What this means is that graduates and former students now live with considerable debts, to the point that they may never be able to afford a mortgage. This is despite Nick Robinson, one of the Beeb’s newscasters, leaping about the TV studio trying to convince everyone that student loans were going to be free money, because you didn’t have to pay them back if you didn’t earn a certain amount. Robinson’s enthusiasm for student loans is only to be expected. He was, after all, the head of the Federation of Conservative Students at Manchester University, and another link between the Tories and the BBC. When Bliar was discussing introducing student fees in the 1990s, there was considerable concern that this would make university too expensive for poorer students. The result would, in the view of one university spokesman, be that universities became a kind of finishing school for wealthy former public school pupils.

I don’t know if that’s quite happened yet. There are still many thousands of pupils willing and eager to go to university. However, with tuition fees rising to the tens of thousands and no funding available for those from lower or middle class backgrounds, it does seem to me that the Tories are aiming at taking us back to the situation before 1963. Four decades of Thatcherism is undoing SuperMac’s work, and higher education is being increasingly selective on the basis, not of talent, but of wealth.

Which is what you’d expect from a government led by toffs.