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.”.

“Robbins Revisited” by David Willets

The Rt Hon. David Willetts MP has just published a pamphlet with the Social Market Foundation called Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher EducationHere are quotes where he mentions mathematics.

Women are still under-represented in sciences (maths and physics) and the applied sciences (computing, engineering, technology and architecture), but the margin has narrowed from the 1960s when only three per cent of students studying “applied science” were women. (p.26)

We want scientists with an awareness of historical context; historians with the maths to handle statistics; mathematicians who can speak another language. (p.50)

Nonetheless, 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 (pp. 50-51)

Maths is a core part of science and engineering subjects – but it comes into many others. As Liz Truss argues with great passion, it is the universal analytical tool which matters more and more in today’s higher education. It matters to the politics student who has to grapple with difficult statistical data, or the nursing student performing a drug calculation. And after leaving university many graduates will find themselves faced with numerical reasoning tests when competing for jobs. Yet only 16 per cent of undergraduates studying subjects other than maths have an A-level in maths under their belt. Often they will have forgotten much of what they once knew, and even if they haven’t, their confidence in their own abilities may be low. (p.51)

This is why Michael Gove’s moves to ensure that everyone continues some level of mathematical study until the age of 18 are so important. Another important initiative is “sigma”, a Hefce funded project. It is establishing approachable maths support services at institutions across the country. Thanks to their work, politics students suddenly confronted with a regression analysis have someone to turn to. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) undergraduates too are receiving expert support to bring their maths skills up to speed. (p.52-52)