Aims and purposes: the history
5.7 The first question which we asked in our written consultation exercise was:
Most of those who responded took as their starting point the Robbins report of 1963.1 The Robbins Committee identified four aims and objectives of higher education which can be summarised as:
5.8 The Secretary of State for Education and Employment undertook a consultation exercise in the autumn of 1994 which invited views on what changes to the Robbins aims were needed in the light of modern circumstances. The Education Departments reported to us on the outcome of that consultation exercise which showed that there was still widespread support for the Robbins aims, but that there needed to be a shift in the balance between them and some amplification and development to reflect the changing context in which higher education now operates.2
5.9 In the light of that, the Departments offered us their updated version of the objectives as a basis for our consideration. Their suggested objectives were:
5.10 The aim of higher education is to enable society to make progress through an understanding of itself and its world: in short, to sustain a learning society. There are numerous ways in which we could classify and describe what we see as the main components of this aim, but, in the interests of clarity, we have summarised four broad purposes. They all overlap and interlink in important ways and are described in more detail below. The first relates specifically to the needs of individuals and the others to societys requirements.
5.11 The four main purposes of higher education are:
Inspiring and enabling individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest levels
5.12 Our vision for the future, outlined in Chapter 1, emphasises the need for individuals to be committed to lifelong learning and for our society to become a learning society. Education and training must be embraced by people at all levels of achievement and, to varying degrees, throughout working life and thereafter to enhance leisure and the quality of life.
5.13 Higher education is one player among many in meeting these needs, but it is likely to play an increasing role because:
5.14 The traditional pattern of an extended, continuous, residential period of higher education taken immediately after school is no longer the predominant pattern of study. In future, a large part of the population will need access to higher education in some form at intervals throughout life. Many will still take a concentrated and lengthy programme of study in higher education, immediately or soon after school or further education, in preparation for entry to work, but this will be seen as only the foundation for the first stage of a career. Such programmes should explicitly prepare students to look forward to, and to manage their learning throughout life so that they can plan and develop their own careers and gain fulfilment.
5.15 Not all students want, or benefit from, a full-time programme of higher education after school or college. Some will prefer to integrate higher education closely with their career development and job needs. For them, part-time study while in employment will be the preferred option. They will need a longer time than full-time students to reach a particular level and may need the flexibility to build up credits over a long period of years. Nor do all students want to enter higher education at the age of 17 or 18 students who enter higher education for the first time before the age of 21 are already in the minority in higher education. Students who have work experience bring a greater breadth of experience to their studies and have more focused needs. They may well get more out of higher education as a result.
5.16 In the years since the Robbins report, but particularly over the last decade, we have seen increasing diversity in the backgrounds of those coming into higher education. Looking ahead, this diversity, and with it the range of requirements on higher education, may be expected to increase, especially if, as we urge, a national commitment to lifelong learning is achieved. More students will need to be able to take short programmes at varying levels to meet specific needs. Some graduates will need postgraduate-level programmes to deepen their knowledge and skills. Others may need to take programmes at undergraduate level or in further education to broaden or change their skills. Some will wish to pursue higher education from time to time to enrich the quality of their lives.
5.17 Thus, although all programmes of higher education should have the same general purpose of developing individuals to higher levels of knowledge and understanding, different programmes should include different specific objectives and learning outcomes.
5.18 The Robbins Committee saw two distinct strands to the work of higher education in developing individuals: imparting employment skills and developing the general powers of the mind. Both are important objectives for higher education, but we do not find it helpful to make a clear-cut distinction between them. The single most important capacity employers seek in those with higher education qualifications is intellectual capabilities of a high order. We take the view that any programme of study in higher education should have as one of its primary intentions the development of higher level intellectual skills, knowledge and understanding in its students. We believe there is intrinsic merit in this aim because it both empowers the individual giving satisfaction and self-esteem as personal potential is realised and because the development of the general powers of the mind underpins the development of many of the other generic skills so valued by employers, and of importance throughout working life.
5.19 There is a long history of highly vocational programmes in higher education in preparation for professions such as medicine. As more and more aspects of employment have become increasingly complex, it is inevitable and right that at least part of professional preparation should take place in higher education. Higher education must continue to have a role in ensuring an adequate supply for the nation of doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, pharmacists, technicians and so on. As the demands on such professions become ever greater, the need for the underpinning of knowledge, skills and understanding provided by higher education becomes more important. The essence of professionalism is a thorough and up-to-date grasp of the fundamental knowledge base of an occupation; sufficient understanding of the underlying theoretical principles to be able to adapt to novel circumstances and to incorporate research findings into practice; and appropriate practical skills and professional values.