Late last year, I was invited to attend a seminar hosted by SGH Martineu (the University’s Solicitors), on the topic ‘Re-writing Robbins – Ensuring an HE system fit for the 21st century’. There was a good line up of speakers who were well briefed and entertaining and they shares some illuminating and thought provoking content. All the slides are available here.

There was a fair bit of “blimey wasn’t everything just fantastic before Willetts/Gove/Brown/Blair/Thatcher (insert bogeyman/woman of choice) ruined everything”, but the theme that struck me most was how much hasn’t changed in the 50 years since the report was published and how Lord Robbins’ report is still highly relevant today.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Lord Robbins chaired the Committee on Higher Education, commissioned by Harold Macmillan’s Governement to advise on the principles that should be applied to the long term development of higher education and any changes required to put those principles into practice; it contained 178 recommendations and was thoroughly evidenced. The report is most famous, and probably rightly so, for triggering the process for establishing a batch of new Universities that have since made a significant mark on UK HE (e.g. Bath, York, Warwick), but it is worth revisiting the contents because the report grapples with some issues that are still debated today. I’ll pick out three just to illustrate my point:

1) Bureaucratic burden
“We’re all going to hell in handcart, Universities have become tied up in red tape, the QAA is killing everything!! Everything was great 10/15/25/40 years ago before all this administration took up everyone’s time.” Right?! Wrong. Have a look at this table contained in the report, it is based on a survey of academic staff working in HE at the time.


[Table 48]

On average staff spent 21% of their time (a full day a week) on administration and other University work, as you move up the seniority, Professorial staff used to spend as much as 38% of their time for some! I’m the kind of administration and ‘other university work’ has changed, but the proportions of time are strikingly similar.

2) Contact hours
“We’re all going to hell in a handcart! Students don’t receive wall to wall tuition any more, dastardly universities are gobbling up student fees and spending it all on something else (not sure what else, but definitely something else!!). Everything was great in the good old days . . .” Here’s another table from the Robbins report

[Table 49]

An average of 10 hours contact per week in HASS and 19 in STEM, the vast majority of teaching delivered in lectures not small classes. Cripes! Have tings changed very much?

3) Student Engagement
“We’re all going to hell in a handcart! Students are paying fees and might think they are consumers, simply passive recipients of educations. This is a new challenge, never faced by HE before . . .” Here’s a quote from the Robbins report:

A passive student is a contradiction in terms; and if it is true that a good teacher makes good students it is also true that good students make good teachers. Higher education should attract, and in some measure create, students who will make demands upon their teachers, and teachers who can both satisfy those demands and stimulate further curiosity and intellectual energy.

[paragraph 519, page 170]

So the challenge was there, back then. I’ve argued before that the new fees regime has not created a new paradigm, it has only added another layer to the complex relationship between students and their universities. (For more on this, do feel free to take a look at this excellent new book that has just been published)

I think the most interesting comment though is this

responsibility for success in any joint enterprise must always rest more heavily on the senior partner, the responsibility is not his alone.

[as above]

Absolutely right, we talk about students as partners, quite right too, but they are not the senior partner, the burden of making the partnership work should always fall on the senior partner (University).


One response »

  1. […] is here? But it is asserted as though it is a killer fact in need of no further explanation. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, this is not really anything new. In 1966 Professors reported that they spent […]

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