The Society for Research into Higher Education

Paul Temple

Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?


by Paul Temple

Nearly 60 years ago, the Robbins Committee (1963) set out the case for university expansion in Britain. Robbins was part of the zeitgeist: just a few weeks before the report was published, Harold Wilson, en route to his 1964 election victory, presented his vision for a new “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [scientific] revolution” (Pimlott, 1992: 304). The “knowledge economy” wasn’t then an idea in common currency or Wilson would surely have worked it into his speech, but he emphasised the importance of higher education in creating economic and social change. University development was key.

Robbins’ historic task was to clear the path intellectually for university expansion by driving a stake through the heart of the “more means worse” argument – though like one of the undead in a cheap horror movie, it still emerges regularly from its grave. What Robbins’ research showed about “the so-called pool of ability” was that entry to university largely depended not on some measure of innate ability but on your father’s occupation: the better your dad’s job, the more likely you were to go to university.

The case that David Goodhart wants to make in his new book Head Hand Heart (2020) is that the Robbins agenda has over-reached itself, causing a “headlong rush into mass academic higher education” (p93). Universities have produced an “expanded cognitive class” allowing “smart people [to] become too powerful” (p4). Robbins, then, on Goodhart’s reckoning, has surely been vindicated: the “pool of ability”, if not limitless, has proved capable of steady enlargement. But this is Goodhart’s problem: whereas once people could have satisfying and worthwhile careers on the basis of “hand” (that is, craft) or “heart” (that is, caring) skills, university expansion, Goodhart claims, has meant that academic qualifications have become the main determinant of career success. (Much of Goodhart’s case here follows Ronald Dore’s “diploma disease” argument from the 1970s and 1980s – though Dore is not mentioned in the book.)

Goodhart’s argumentation relies significantly on “straw man” methods, illustrated with anecdotes about friends’ children. So we have the lad who really wants to be a professional footballer who somehow finds himself studying physics, unhappily, at university; or the university dropout who develops a successful career as a car technician. But who has ever claimed that university education suits everyone, or that there aren’t worthwhile careers that don’t demand a degree? Goodhart has a particular beef about nursing becoming a graduate profession: there is, he says, “quite widespread popular hostility” (p133) to the change. (I’d like to be present, incidentally, when the nurses at my GP surgery are ticked off for their lack of “real-life experience” (p134).)

Quite a lot of Goodhart’s argument assumes that there is such a thing as “a graduate job”; but “A graduate job”, a careers service director once told me, “is a job a graduate does.” Most employers value graduates not for their knowledge of medieval history or whatever, but because their degree attests to a range of transferable skills – analysing data, drawing conclusions, presenting an argument, and the rest of it. So the Café Rouge junior purchasing manager who is “very unlikely to use [at work] anything they have learned doing a three year bachelor’s degree” (p246) would probably do a better job in preparing a report on, say, trends in wine consumption than her non-graduate colleagues: she has spent three years learning from experts the craft of report-writing. When promotions come round, we can imagine someone at head office saying, “Oh yes, she’s the woman who did that great report on drinking habits.” Her envious colleagues might then read Goodhart and conclude that her promotion merely reflected corporate bias in favour of the cognitive class.

Which brings us, I’m afraid, to Brexit, largely brought about, Goodhart thinks, by “cultural-education divides in politics” (p158) caused by the values and priorities of our Café Rouge junior purchasing manager being implemented at the expense of those without the advantages of her gilded career. (Or formerly gilded: the group that owns the Café Rouge chain went into administration in July 2020.)

As I’ve suggested, Goodhart sets out to challenge positions that hardly anybody holds. Of course there are worthwhile careers that don’t need degrees: becoming expert at a craft is a serious undertaking, and you’re not a bad person because you don’t fancy student life. What bothers me is that the people who will be encouraged to think that university isn’t for them will not generally be from middle-class families, unable to decide between physics and football: they will be mainly from families with no experience of higher education and from schools where relatively few students go on to university. I’m therefore uneasy about advantaged people promoting a view that others should settle for “skills and qualities other than cognitive-analytical intelligence” (p4). Goodhart would take us back to pre-Robbins days, where family circumstances framed the emancipatory possibilities of higher education.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at


Committee on Higher Education (1963) Higher Education: Report (Cmnd 2154) London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Goodhart, D (2020) Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century London: Allen Lane/Penguin Books

Pimlott, B (1992). Harold Wilson London: HarperCollins

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

5 thoughts on “Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?

  1. Beautifully put as usual! Thank you

  2. Elegantly excoriating – thank you!

  3. Pingback: Transforming Society ~ Other people’s jobs: why we must resist the myth of the ‘unskilled worker’ during the COVID-19 crisis

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