Tony Gardiner: David Willetts and “Robbins Revisited”

David Willetts (Minister of State for Universities and Science) has just published a possibly significant pamphlet with the Social Market Foundation called Robbins Revisited:

Robbins was an LSE economist whose committee examined the future of the ish university system – reporting in 1963. The report was unusually perceptive and its recommendations influenced policy for the next 30 years. This report is interesting in that it indicates the relevant Minister’s desire to place current HE policy in a historical context. Half of the time the contextualising makes sense; but half of the time it seems to be influenced by the need for post hoc self-justification.

As so often with high level documents, the data are wilfully distorted (whether deliberately or through wishful thinking one cannot know) in order to fit a required political perspective. Willetts repeatedly interprets data as demonstrating “improvement” even where we know it does no such thing. And where the uncomfortable explanation is to hand, he prefers to express puzzlement – as on p.69 where he observes

“an apparent mismatch between the supply and demand for high-level computer skills. Employers currently say they cannot find the skills they need yet computer science graduates find it relatively hard to find graduate-level work”

but then fails to infer that perhaps many computer science undergraduates are accepted onto courses, and graduate, without the relevant “high-level skills”.

He makes no mention of the botched attempts to broaden studies at age 16-18 (e.g. Tomlinson), or of the fact that the A level ‘gold standard’ his colleagues defend makes sense only if it supports specialisation. He then misinterprets the English fudge of continuing with A levels while abandoning specialisation (Table 5.1) as if it were a move in the direction of the kind of breadth Robbins advocated.

However, he has a relevant qualification (pp.50-1):

“there is an important distinction to be made between the need for breadth in general, and the need for maths skills in particular. In an interview with The Listener in 1967 Robbins was asked why the numbers opting for applied and pure sciences had fallen below expectations. He blamed what he called “the terror of mathematics”, caused by poor teaching and a preoccupation in university maths departments with producing “aces”.

This issue has not gone away. Last year the Lords Science and Technology Committee expressed its shock that many Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) undergraduates lacked the mathematical skills required to cope with their course at university. The National Audit Office has warned that this is an issue for student retention. Maths is a core part of science and engineering subjects – but it comes into many others […] it is the universal analytical tool which matters more and more in today’s higher education.”.

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