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Josh Patel

Research Overview

I am a third year PhD student at the University of Warwick. My research is supervised by Claudia Stein and Mathew Thomson, and kindly funded by History Departmental funding.

The thesis is currently proceeding under the title: Liberalism, achieving the ‘Good Society’, and British Higher Education (1955-1972): “All those who are qualified by ability and attainment and who wish to do so.”


My thesis explores the influence of a vision of society of the leaders of British higher education in the 1950s and 1960s. They imagined a society where the state would provide the conditions for individual freedom and innovation to thrive and that this would engender the good, prosperous society. The thesis argues that the dominant welfare and social democratic politics was not contradictory to this liberal non-interventionism; it was, in the case of higher education policy, often complementary. My thesis uncovers this moment, which is so relevant to current debates in higher education. It also addresses the difficulties in realising the vision.

Special emphasis is placed on the Report of the Committee on Higher Education (1963). Known as the Robbins Committee after its chairman, economist Lionel Robbins (1898-1984), the committee urged the government to dramatically expand access to higher education. The report commissioned several major sample surveys of higher education in the UK and relied heavily on statistical description and inferences. Robbins himself was an outspoken liberal individualist and fierce opponent of much centralised state planning and interventionism. It seems odd that Robbins and his committee would produce such a report, which has been seen as a pillar of the welfare state and one of the major achievements of social democratic governance.

The thesis firstly re-examines the writings and influence of Lionel Robbins. Robbins is a key protagonist in a growing body of literature concerned with the emergence of ‘neoliberalism’ from the 1920s to the 1940s. Central to Robbins’ economic thought was the belief that all individuals had the capacity to judge for themselves the best distribution of the resources available to them. States risked despotism and inefficiency if they supressed this capacity by redistributing resources. I argue Robbins believed his support of social-democratic government interventionist policies after 1945 was entirely consistent with his pre-war ‘neoliberalism’. This analysis refocuses historical attention on the nuance in the development of liberalism in Britain from 1945-1970.

The thesis reassesses the Robbins Report in this new light and unveils a complementary relationship between liberal economic thought and social democratic welfare provision. Firstly, the report’s sociological surveys confirmed that the proportion of the population capable of benefiting from study in higher education was much wider than ‘elitists’ assumed. For the report, artificial social barriers preventing any individuals from properly assessing for themselves the best utilisation of the resources available to them were inefficient and should be removed. Secondly, the report did not advocate using manpower planning to determine the number of higher education places. This would have involved calculating centrally the numbers of students needed to fill the jobs required by the nation. Instead, the report advocated a system which provided places in higher education based on ‘student demand.’ Students would freely choose to invest time in higher education to maximise their future returns and this would determine the size of higher education.

The state, while accepting its recommendations for massive expansion, deviated from the reports’ vision for higher education. After 1965 the state introduced the polytechnics, new higher education institutions intended to be more responsive to social needs calculated by manpower planning. The professional association of university leaders, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, (CVCP) drawing on the arguments of the Robbins Report, argued that this would be inefficient and undermined the capacity of the universities to respond to national needs articulated by student demand. To demonstrate their responsivity, the CVCP sought to more closely align the character of their graduate output to the needs of industry, the main source of national growth. Industry, and society more widely, needed graduates educated in breadth to meet the interdisciplinary challenges of productive industry and maximise national returns on higher education. This educational philosophy was prevalent at the ‘New Universities’ of York (1963), Warwick (1965), and Stirling (1967). Local university promoters, national educational elites, and the new Vice-Chancellors all proposed, sometimes competing, sometimes collaborative, visions of the new function of a university. Part of their vision was to imbue students with character to understand the nature of industrial capitalist society and its philosophy, including ‘correct’ understandings of mechanisms such as the profit motive.

The thesis brings in the role of ideas into the histories of the universities, an area which has been criticised as lacking an appreciation of the effects of wider cultural contexts. Broadly, it addresses the educational philosophies which characterised policy and syllabuses in this period and considers questions as to what the role of the graduate and higher in society should be.

Previous Research

My previous research has been historiographical and primarily concerned with the so called ‘biological turn’ in history writing since the early 2000s. This research explored the attraction for many historians of the insights of biology, evolutionary psychology, and neurobiology, in addition to, or in place of, traditional written sources, and the consequences of such a move for history writing. I have argued that the ‘biological turn’ unreflexively reciprocates the privileged epistemological position of science in popular and wider culture, contrary to the understanding of science in contemporary history of science. More fundamentally however, the attraction of the sciences, both in the ‘biological turn’ and in contemporary orthodox ‘sociocultural’ history writing, lies in acknowledged and unacknowledged understandings and definitions of what constitutes 'historical truth' in history writing. These understandings can be traced back to early-twentieth century American pragmatism, which have been deployed in response to what is seen by some sociocultural historians as the threatening ‘relativism’ of the linguistic turn and poststructuralism since the 1990s.


Research interests

My general area of research interest focus on twentieth and twenty-first century British thought, and includes more broadly:

  • History of liberal governmentality
  • Pedagogy and politics, past and present
  • Pragmatism, Neopragmatism, and its history
  • Historiography of global history and environmental history
    Academic Background, Awards and Teaching
    • 2017-2021: History PhD, University of Warwick..
      - Awarded full departmental studentship
      - 2019-2020: teaching three seminar groups in second/third year core module 'Historiography'
    • 2016-2017: MA Global and Comparative History (Distinction), University of Warwick.
      - Awarded 2016-17 Best MA Dissertation Prize.
      - Dissertation title: ‘Telling the ‘Truth’ about the ‘Biological Turn’? Sociocultural history and pragmatism.’ Supervised by Claudia Stein.
      - Awarded full departmental scholarship.
    • 2013-2016: BA History (First), University of Warwick.
      - Dissertation title: ‘The ‘Biological Turn’: politics and agency.’
      Publications, Conferences and Funding Awards
      • Forthcoming: ‘Telling the ‘Truth’ about the ‘Biological Turn’? Science and Pragmatism in sociocultural history writing’ for Rethinking History, 2021 (proposal accepted).
      • June 2020: Discussion group on ‘Rereading the Robbins Report: Economic thought and achieving the liberal 'good society' in Higher Education (1961-1963)’, Vaughn College, Leicester
      • December 2019: Awarded the Economic History Society’s Research Fund for Graduate Students, in support of archive trips to the University of Stirling.
      • November 2019: 'The moral and economic thought behind the ‘flow survey’ of 21-year-olds by the Robbins Committee (1961-63)', History of Education Society Annual Conference. Awarded full bursary for conference attendance by the HES.
      • September 2019: 'The welfare state and liberal economic thought in the Robbins Committee (1961-63): an uncomfortable alliance?', Research Group on University History, Manchester, Universities and their Contested Pasts.
      • July 2019: 'Neurohistory: heretical history writing? The pragmatic philosophy of sociocultural history and the future of the critical humanities', IX Lisbon Summer School for the Study of Culture: Neurohumanities: Promises & Threats. Supported with funding from the Warwick Connecting Cultures GRP.
      • June 2019: 'Quinn Slobodian, 'Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism' (2018): Global History Reading Group', Global History and Culture Centre Blog
      • June 2019: Finalist of 'Three Minute Thesis competition (3MT)' (University of Warwick).
      • May 2019: Realising the ‘Good Society’ through Economic Science: the Robbins Report into Higher Education (1963), Department of History Postgraduate Conference, University of Warwick.
      • September 2018: 'An unlikely alliance? ‘Human Capital’ and Social Democracy in the Robbins Report (1963)', HEC Summer School, European University Institute.
      • May 2017: 'The ‘biological turn’ in history writing: what is man? And how do these assumptions drive history writing?', Department of History Postgraduate Conference, University of Warwick.
      • March 2017: ‘The ‘Biological Turn’ in History Writing’, Exchanges: The Warwick Research Journal, 4:2 (2017) pp. 280-297.
        - Some very early thoughts on the ‘biological turn’. Contains material initially submitted as part of my undergraduate dissertation.
        - In the same issue of Exchanges, credited as 'editorial assistant' in Michael Trevor Bycroft, 'Ideals and Practices of Rationality – An Interview with Lorraine Daston' Exchanges: The Warwick Research Journal, 4:2 (2017), pp. 173-188.
      Other interests
      • Keen competitive swimmer, coach and swimming teacher
      • Other awards:
        - Collin Brummit Trophy 2016-17 for ‘outstanding contribution’ to sport at Warwick University.
        - Postgraduate Activator of the Year 2016-17 in recognition of voluntary role (Activator) at Warwick Sport.
      June 2020

      Josh Patel