Outdone by his own success: By expanding the universities Lord Robbins made a state-ownership model too expensive to be viable
"More will mean worse," Kingsley Amis wrote in 1960, lamenting the planned growth of British higher education. Yet he was wrong. Today, following a huge expansion in the numbers of staff, students and institutions, British universities vie with American universities to top every international league table. More has meant better. Why?
To be fair to Amis, the expansion of British higher education was not rooted propitiously. The expansion was, in fact, born of political panic out of intellectual error, and its immediate precipitant was, of all things, the launch of Russia's Sputnik, in 1957.
It seems odd today, but half a century ago people respected the Soviet Union's economy. The USSR's companies were run by engineers; Russia had substituted central planning for the pricing mechanism; and its government invested vastly in education and research. People supposed that such a rational economy would overtake the market economies of the West. So in 1956 Harold Wilson, the Shadow Chancellor, claimed that "Russia's industrial challenge may well dominate the world economic scene" and in that same year the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, said those countries "with the best systems of education will win".
A year later Sputnik — the world's first artificial satellite — was launched. It circulated the globe for three months, it emitted Dr Who-like radio bleeps, and it provoked international panic: the Russians had won the space race! In the words of Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi rocketeer who was to lead much of America's space programme: "Sputnik triggered a period of self-appraisal rarely equalled in modern times. Overnight, it became popular to question the bulwarks of our society; our public education system, our industrial strength, international policy, defence strategy and forces, the capability of our science and technology. Even the moral fibre of our people."
The US responded in 1958 by creating Nasa (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and by passing the National Defense Education Act, which directed vast sums of money at the universities. The British responded analogously in 1958 by inter alia announcing the creation of the seven, so-called Shakespearean, new universities of Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick, York and East Anglia. But would the seven be enough to match the Marxist economic threat? The government feared not, so in 1961 it commissioned Lord Robbins, of the London School of Economics, to justify the creation of yet more: it was 50 years ago this autumn that his committee published.
The Robbins Report famously asserted that university places "should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment", which seems unexceptionable except that Robbins's definition of those so qualified encompassed all those who had passed two A levels at grade E. Robbins complained that whereas 90 per cent of all school-leavers who had attained at least three A levels were embarking on full-time higher education, only 62 per cent of school-leavers with two A levels were entering it; and of that 62 per cent most were training to be teachers, so only 22 per cent of school-leavers with two A levels were actually proceeding to university. Robbins condemned that figure of 22 per cent as reflecting "increased competition for entry to university". It was, he wrote, "most undesirable that this [competition] should increase...In fact it should be reduced."
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