Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Will Robbins Ride Again?: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Will Robbins Ride Again?: Opinion

Article excerpt

Gareth Williams laments the decline of higher education research since its heyday following an influential report.

The Robbins report, published 50 years ago this month, is remembered as the document that sparked the huge modern expansion of the UK's university system. But it is also the document that jump-started the academic study of higher education, in which the UK led the world until relatively recently.

Before 1963, we had the Universities Quarterly - effectively a predecessor of Twitter for past, present and aspiring vice-chancellors - and occasional articles about higher education in sociology journals. The Robbins Committee carried out the first policy-focused research into all aspects of higher education: undergraduates, postgraduates, university teachers, teacher training, further education and 21-year-olds. It also produced an analysis of a large number of historical records and a review of higher education provision in 10 major countries.

The committee appreciated that expansion needed to be underpinned by sound ongoing evidence, so it recommended that research into higher education "should be encouraged both by responsible organs of government and by private foundations". This recommendation was heeded and the UK became an undisputed leader in the field for several decades, as the literature of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s shows.

Within a year of the report's appearance, the London School of Economics had set up its Unit for Economic and Statistical Studies in Higher Education, under the leadership of the same two academics who had led the Robbins Committee's research. The University of London also established a Teaching and Learning Development Centre, the Society for Research into Higher Education was launched and the statistical section of the Department of Education and Science formalised the publication of the main statistical series started by Robbins.

Many other universities also established higher education research centres and doctoral students began to concentrate on higher education as a distinct field of study. Specialist journals and magazines (including the Times Higher Education Supplement, as this magazine was then known) burgeoned; more than 20 can now be found in specialist university libraries. …

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