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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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Terence Kealey
September 5th, 2013
2:09 PM
I thank Ken Westmorland for his comment, but if we were ahead of our time then he is behind the curve! Buckingham has changed since he was here. Student numbers have more than doubled, and the growth has been in home students, so the majority of our students are now home students. The humanities flourish (the drama society is staging the Little Shop of Horrors this week) and every year - depending on how the stats are calculated - we come either top or towards the top of the National Students Survey (of satisfaction.) We have, moreover, sparked a trend, and there are now three other independent universities in the UK, one not-for-profit like ourselves (Regents) and two for-profit (Law and BPP.) Come back and see us Mr Westmoreland.

Ken Westmoreland
September 4th, 2013
11:09 AM
The problem with the University of Buckingham is that it has been ahead of its time, and the fact that it has been the only private university in the country has been a handicap. I only went there because as the child of a British expatriate, I had to pay overseas tuition fees, so was one of the few British people who went there. When I told other British people I went there, I got the mixture of ignorance ('What was it called when it was a polytechnic?' 'It never was one') and inverse snobbery ('Oh, the rich man's university') It was, and still is, an irrelevance. In 2003, Dr Kealey himself said that the University had become a vocational school for law and business for non-British students because 'that's where the market has taken us'. That is the problem - all those Nigerians, Pakistanis and Malaysians who go there neither know nor care about classical liberalism or libertarianism that the university's founders care about, they just want to get a law or accountancy degree as quickly as possible. Nothing wrong with them doing that, but drop the delusions of grandeur, Dr Kealey, and the incestuous trumpeting. Only when there are other private universities in the UK shall Buckingham be able to compare like with like. Perhaps it might look on the humanities more favourably than it has done as a result of more British students going there, and start teaching the Classics. I've never been a fan of them, but Buckingham is notoriously philistine, so their inclusion would be a sign that it had changed for the better.

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