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-time 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.

The most serious result of the under-representation of secondary education on the Committee concerned the flow of science and technology students into higher education. The ill effects of the competition for university places in promoting premature and excessive specialisation in schools have been a staple of British educational discussions since the 1890s; and the ritual condemnations of over-specialisation were duly made in Chapter Seven of the Robbins Report. The Committee entirely failed, however, to stress, or even to mention, the risk to which the specialisation of sixth form courses was exposing the UGC. Lord Robbins and his colleagues knew that the UGC was advising universities ‘to plan their building programmes, at least in the initial years of the expansion, on the assumption that ... two-thirds of the increases in student numbers were likely to come within ... pure and applied science and the remaining third in arts and social studies.’ By advocating an increased and accelerated expansion, and thus a much enlarged capital programme, the Robbins Committee were putting enormous faith in the correctness of the UGC’s ‘assumption’.

This faith was achieved in defiance of the known facts. An interim UGC report showed that between 1956 and 1961 science and technology students accounted for only 56 per cent of the increased student numbers. Nearly every secondary teacher knew that the English system put large obstacles in the way of recruitment to higher education courses with a scientific or technological component. If boys and girls are required at 15 to choose the subjects which they will study, many of them will choose the ones which they associate with a brilliant and attractive teacher. Thus the bias will be towards the subjects where every teaching vacancy advertised attracts a strong field of entry. In 1961, as now, such fields were far commoner in arts subjects than in science. Secondly, the choice for arts in the sixth form was irreversible, whereas that for science was not. The student who had done maths or science in the sixth could choose a university subject in arts or social studies, such as philosophy or law, for which no special preparation in the sixth form was required. The same was not true for someone who had done arts in the sixth: he would find the doors to university science barred against him.

These facts were vividly illustrated in a Report, sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation, which the Oxford Department of Education had produced in 1960. When 374 pupils in French lycées, and 335 in German gymnasien, were asked to compile an imaginary Baccalauréat or Abitur in which they were allowed to drop all but four subjects, and to choose those four without restriction, only five out of the 709 chose all four from the maths/science group.

There was nothing wrong with the Robbins Committee’s aim in science and technology – 74,000 new places in 1967 and 174,000 by 1980: but to suppose that these could be filled without a drastic re-organisation of secondary education was a damaging folly. ‘If the “extra places”,’ Mr Carswell writes, ‘were equally divided between men and women, the number of women studying that group of subjects ... would almost have to treble in five years, from about 12,000 to over 30,000; and increase more than eightfold to 99,000 in less than 20 years ...’ If the schools ‘provided four times as many admissible women science candidates by 1977 as they had done in the early Sixties, there would in theory still be some 40,000 qualified girls seeking to enter arts, social science and medicine for which [sic] places were not provided under the plan; and about a similar number of places in science and technology would be filled either by male candidates of lower calibre than in the 1960s, or by students from abroad, or would not be filled at all.’

‘The shortfall of 83,000 students of those subjects in 1980 feebly reflects the broader picture,’ Mr Carswell concludes: ‘the accumulated deficits of previous years since 1962 have come to about 150,000 newly qualified scientists and technologists.’ The Robbins Committee thus confirmed the disastrous practice of providing science and technology places in higher education without taking measures to give some assurance that they would be properly filled. In February 1964 the UGC repeated their advice that two-thirds of the new places provided should be in science and technology: there was, they reported, ‘no indication’ that this advice had been ‘unsound’. In the event, university students in science, engineering and technology increased during the 1962-67 quinquennium by only 38 per cent, as compared with a 63 per cent increase in arts and social studies. The Green Paper of May 1985 recorded that ‘the increased numbers of science and technology places in public sector institutions planned by the NAB for ... 1984/5 ... had not been fully taken up.’ The Government found this ‘remarkable’. To any well-informed observer it was lamentably unsurprising.

The fact that employers’ views were not represented forcefully on the Committee was equally damaging. It was all too easy to assume in 1963 that a willingness to recruit graduates in great numbers showed a high regard for the value of degree courses. The truth was more complex. In the climate of that time employers who wanted the ablest recruits had no alternative to taking graduates. The employer might want the graduates from a belief in all that the last three years would have given them: equally he might want them merely because, in the 1960s, young men and women of the kind he needed could be recruited only as graduates. A phenomenon which might perhaps be termed (however clumsily) defensive credentialism was already apparent by the time of the Robbins Report, nursing training being perhaps its most conspicuous example. Organisations were raising their educational requirements, not because of the work concerned, but simply in order to establish their claim to their share of the most capable recruits. The Robbins Committee should have kept before their eyes the ‘Alpha Factor’, which is defined in the 1985 Green Paper as ‘the proportion of the observed earnings differential between graduates and A-level holders ... attributable to education rather than to other factors (such as ability)’. The term ‘ability’ there begs several questions and the possible differences between individual and social rates of return would bear much examination: but cavalier treatment of the ‘Alpha Factor’ opened the Robbins Committee to the dangerous conviction that British higher education not only was, but would remain, highly regarded everywhere. In a study published last year, Degrees for Jobs, Judith Roizen and Mark Jepson write:

The ‘screen’ of higher education selects a group of people who, upon graduating, will provide a richer source of potential recruits for the employing organisations than the cohort from which it was selected. For this reason it is more cost-effective for employers to tap the ‘richer’ graduate source than the whole age group ... Employers argue that ... the value added by a degree lies not so much in the qualities developed by reading for [it], but in the effects which increased access to higher education has on the quality of the pool of manpower which enters the labour market at 18. (Perhaps this should be regarded as ‘value subtracted’ in recruiting 18-year-olds, rather than a real ‘value added’ by a degree.)

Defects in the composition of the Robbins Committee do not adequately explain errors and evasions of this magnitude. Mr Carswell seems too kind to the Committee when he writes that ‘meaningful figures’ on maths and science A levels were ‘not available’ to them. It is true that some of the danger signals did not appear until the Report had been published. Mr Carswell cites the UCCA statement in January 1965 that the universities could have taken 1,500 more students in science and technology ‘had suitable candidates presented themselves’. He might equally have cited the warning in the Bulletin of the Institute of Physics a year earlier. The credit for assembling the crucial O-level statistics belongs to the Dainton Committee, who were appointed in 1965 and reported three years later. But the Moser figures would have acted as a red light to a Committee willing to see danger signals. Lord Robbins and his colleagues knew that two-thirds of the girls with two or more A levels held them in arts subjects only (Table 31); that the proportion of all A-level passes gained in the maths/science group had fallen in each of the last three years (Table 45); and that, among first-degree students holding two or more A levels of A or B grade, while ‘science’ showed very strongly, ‘applied science’ lagged far behind ‘humanities’ (Appendix 2B, Table F.1).

Such a disregard of red lights is explicable only in terms of the attitude of Mr Carswell’s ‘inner group’ of academics. This consisted of Lord Robbins, Sir Philip Morris, Sir Patrick Linstead and Sir Keith (now Lord) Murray, the UGC Assessor with the Committee. Like every other commentator Mr Carswell judges Morris, the Vice-Chancellor of Bristol, to have been the most powerful member of the group. His summary of Morris’s attitude and position could not be bettered. ‘For the Robbins Committee to succeed,’ he writes,

it had to deliver a report with which the universities would co-operate, as well as one the Government would accept. Morris stood even closer to this delicate point of balance than either Robbins himself or the Chairman of the UGC. He was himself a convinced expansionist and firmly believed that the enlargement of higher and further educational opportunity was the path towards a civilised and prosperous society. He also had a high regard for the Whitehall establishment as it then was, and for the arrangements it had for financing the universities. But he knew that there were those in the universities – some of them Vice-Chancellors and many others in the departments and faculties – who would have reservations, perhaps on grounds of the upheaval expansion would cause, perhaps from fear of dilution, perhaps out of anxiety that large additional infusions of government money would lead to an unhealthy interest by government in university matters. It was Morris’s particular concern, and his achievement, to ensure that the Report should contain the maximum of reassurance to the universities on all these points, and to maintain contact with the universities informally while the Report was being drafted.

If the imagination of the public was to be caught, if the doubting academics were to be reassured, there would have to be very little mention of the difficulties of expansion. The taxpayer might not share the Committee’s hopes about the contribution which expansion of the humanities would make to ‘the intellectual and spiritual life of the country’. There must accordingly be great emphasis on the supply of ‘trained manpower’, and no suggestion that the target figures in technology might be unattainable. The Senate at Bristol must be convinced that the civic university model was the main one for expansion and that agreement to expand would guarantee not merely continued autonomy but generous funding: there were to be ‘specially generous capital grants’ to enable the newer universities to rival the attractions of Oxford and Cambridge. Faced by all the parents who wanted a college education for their children, the Committee responded as Necker is said to have done to Louis XVI: ‘Sir, if it is possible consider it done. If it is impossible it will be done.’

It was a heady time, when the willingness of the British public to pay for a great system of higher education seemed assured. There was no fear that spreading the available resources over many universities might leave Britain with no institutions of outstanding international reputation: ‘there should,’ the Committee pronounced, ‘be no freezing of institutions into established hierarchies.’

It would be unfair to attribute every unrealistic passage in the Report to tactical reticence or over-optimism, or to the hectic pace at which the work was done. The ‘inner group’ consisted of eminent and elderly university figures, the youngest of them being just sixty when the Report appeared. Their devotion to the university ideal was genuine and profound. The Committee’s figures for costs per student showed universities, because of research expenditure, to be considerably more expensive than the public sector. In what turned out to be one of their most valuable recommendations they sought, by turning the Hives Council into the Council for National Academic Awards, to end the universities’ monopoly of degree-giving. They had, therefore, to face the argument that by giving universities the largest share in the expansion of degree work they were making unit costs unduly high. ‘The overriding consideration,’ they reported, ‘that, in our view, outweighs this and other arguments is the undoubted gain to young people of being brought into contact with leaders of thought, and of knowing themselves to be members of an institution in which the highest standards of intellectual excellence are honoured.’ To laugh at this passage would be demeaning: perhaps a wry and envious smile might be permitted.

The remark by Necker quoted above is apposite since he spoke just before a revolution. The dream of a higher education world of autonomous institutions lasted less than two years. In April 1965 Tony Crosland dispersed the last wraiths of it in his Woolwich speech, when he christened the binary arrangement. The dream of an expanded system which should be the taxpayer’s favourite lasted little longer. The student disturbances, which had broken out at Berkeley only a year after the Report was published, soon spread to British universities and colleges. From October 1966 the London School of Economics experienced some years of disruption and Lord Robbins’s time as its Chairman was unhappy. In December 1968 the Senate House of Bristol University was the scene of a student sit-in which lasted for 11 days. The ‘inner group’ of the Robbins Committee looked, when the Report was signed, as if they held the key to the future: in reality their day was almost over. Morris’s natural constituency consisted of the people for whom he had devised the Army’s current affairs pamphlets during the second war. He understood that generation, the forty-year-olds who thought themselves lucky to have survived the war and to have secure jobs, and who were delighted that their children should have the chance of going to college. The newcomers were more demanding; and the resulting disturbances cost the universities much support. In this harsher scene, compounded of accelerated inflation, a declining birth-rate and the oil price rises, it was left to younger men such as Mr Carswell to stand the bombardments and to hang on everywhere. As this book shows, they did so, while wondering whether Blücher would ever come.