Did more mean worse?

Michael Brock

  • Government and the Universities in Britain: Programme and Performance 1960-1980 by John Carswell
    Cambridge, 181 pp, £19.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 521 25826 X

John Carswell is uniquely qualified to provide an official’s chronicle of British higher education in the Robbins and post-Robbins phases. He was assigned to the universities desk in the Treasury in 1960 when the Robbins Committee was being appointed. He left the secretaryship of the University Grants Committee for that of the British Academy in 1977. As his historical work on the 18th century has shown, he writes well. His Thoughts on the Present Discontents may not quite match Burke’s: but they are cleverly marshalled. His many insights are highly informative. His few in comprehensions could hardly be more revealing.

Mr Carswell names the Assessors who sat with the Robbins Committee and acted as liaison officers with the ministries concerned. He was in the secrets as the Treasury’s Assessor. This book is built round the Robbins Report of 1963 and what flowed from it. For Mr Carswell the Report stands as ‘one of the great state papers of this century, and possibly the last of its line’.

Lord Robbins’s recommendations were greeted on publication with enormous acclaim. There is now some danger that they will be remembered with excessive obloquy. He and his colleagues cannot be blamed for failing to solve the insoluble. They were confronted with a comparatively small collection of universities which enjoyed, in both staff-student ratios and student maintenance, the world’s most generous provisions. To say that they did not show how best to integrate these by rapid expansion into a large, variegated higher education system is merely to charge them with lacking divine powers. They were right to put central insistence on a massive expansion. The ‘more-will-mean-worse’ school was inept and unrealistic. Entrance standards had risen sharply since the 1930s. Those gaining A-level qualifications were increasing every year. Anything but a large expansion would have been not merely impossible politically, but educationally and socially wrong. Nor was the victory of the expansionists easily gained even in those sanguine days. Ready acceptance of great changes has not been a prominent feature of the university world. Without the overwhelming skill of Claus Moser and Richard Layard in statistical analysis and presentation the old guard might have died slowly and hard.

Although the Robbins Committee must be absolved from causing all subsequent disasters, their misfortunes and mistakes cannot be accounted small. In the first place, as Mr Carswell hints, the Committee was defectively composed. Secondary education was badly represented, since both of the ‘heads’ on the Committee came from independent schools. Dame Kitty Anderson had presided over North London Collegiate since 1944; Anthony Chenevix-Trench moved from Brad-field to Eton while the Committee was operating. ‘His contributions,’ as Mr Carswell tells us, ‘were few.’ There was no voice on the Committee from teachers in the local authority schools, let alone from the new comprehensives. The relations between universities and the schools supplying them are crucial and complex. The universities have to depend on what the schools deliver, but the competition for university places affects nearly everyone in secondary education, including many pupils who will never reach higher education at all. It is questionable whether the Committee’s terms of reference were drawn widely enough. An instruction to review ‘the pattern of full-time higher education’ which mentioned neither post-compulsory secondary nor non-advanced further education (nor indeed part-cime provision) did not give the right signals. The representation of employers was equally defective. Sir Edward Herbert died before the Report had been signed. Mr R.B. Southall and Sir David Anderson ‘belonged’, in Mr Carswell’s words, ‘to the silent minority’. All four members of the ‘inner group’, as Mr Carswell defines it, were academics.

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