Media Release

Press Release: David Willetts calls for a ‘cultural change back towards teaching’ in UK universities

The UK Higher Education system has become ‘so lopsided away from teaching’ that it requires a ‘real cultural change’, Universities Minister David Willetts says today in a new pamphlet for the think tank the Social Market Foundation. Mr Willetts also explores the case for a large expansion in university places to keep up with the demands of both the economy and would-be students.

The SMF pamphlet, entitled Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education, takes a wide-ranging look at UK Higher Education over the past fifty years since the launch of Lord Robbins’ influential 1963 Higher Education report, which paved the way for the expansion of higher education in the UK.

While hailing the quality of Higher Education in the UK and its increasing global influence over the past fifty years, Mr Willetts warns that ‘the pendulum has swung too far away from teaching’ towards research, with the teaching-research split at pre-Robbins universities now around 40:60, compared to 55:45 in 1963. David Willetts states that a shift towards Robbins’ understanding of teaching and research as complementary, not detrimental, to each other is needed if we want a better, less ‘lopsided’, higher education system.

Mr Willetts identifies the new funding system for higher education as the key to unlocking a renewed focus on teaching quality, stating that the government intends to consult with the HE sector about publishing breakdowns of teaching, discussion and feedback time which will ‘allow students and parents to judge courses by the sort of teaching they value’ and ‘make good teaching visible, providing a powerful incentive for institutions to continue to improve’.

David Willetts also examines the number of places which universities may need to make available in the near future to meet increased demand and the rise in the number of births since 2000. He explores one scenario which puts the number of prospective entrants by 2035 as high as 460,000, up from 368,000 in 2011-12.

Commenting on the pamphlet, Emran Mian, SMF Director and former lead official on the Browne Review of Higher Education said: 

David Willetts provides a compelling case for expanding higher education. This is our best bet for equipping the UK economy with the skills it needs and improving social mobility.

Expansion and the competition for students that can come with it also have the potential to drive up the quality of teaching, but more needs be done. The cap on fees has resulted in universities charging roughly the same levels, with no discernible variation for standards of education provided. That’s why providing better information to students and parents about teaching quality would be a first step in the right direction.


  • Robbins Revisited is a new Social Market Foundation pamphlet authored by Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science. Robbins Revisited examines fifty years of the UK Higher Education system since the launch of Lord Robbins’ influential 1963 Higher Education report and sets out recommendations for the future. It explores:
    • The growth of UK higher education;
    • Teaching quality;
    • Breadth of university study;
    • Funding of higher education, and;
    • The relationship between Universities and government.
  • Robbins Revisited is kindly supported by Universities UK, University Alliance, 1994 Group, Guild HE and QAA.


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