Corrupting the academy

David Willetts – the man they mystifyingly call “two brains” – has come up with yet another of his wheezes. He suggests that teenagers from the wealthiest families should be able to secure places at elite universities if they can pay the full fees up front. These extra students would not be eligible for student loans – hence only the very wealthiest would be able to take advantage (with fees at a minimum of £12,000 per year and an average national wage of under £25,000).

It has caused predictable outrage – and rightly so. It’s obvious – so obvious that it barely needs saying, but some people seem to miss the point – that the privileged have been buying preferential access to elite universities for decades. Private schools educate 8% of children but account for 50% of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge – a figure that has barely changed since I was an undergraduate at Oxford in the early 1980s. They’re better resourced, better prepared, better connected – and that’s before we get on to the state subsidy that private education enjoys through charitable status and VAT exemption. And – as anyone who has been through the system knows – it means that Oxbridge places are taken by a wealthy minority who can’t hack it academically, taking places from state school students who could.

In one sense, then, Willetts is merely proposing to make explicit something that has gone on for years. But at least the high entry requirements gave the appearance of meritocracy – it’s difficult to see how the arrival of a cadre of the super-rich exempted from the usual applications process will do anything other than reduce academic standards and lead to a the two-tier system of the nineteenth century, with scholars doing academic work and gentlemen commoners essentially loafing at an elite finishing school.

But this begs some pretty fundamental questions about what universities are for.

The Robbins Report of 1963, which paved the way for the expansion of higher education in Britain, was in no doubt. It argued that university places “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment” (the so-called Robbins principle). There should be four principal aims:

instruction in skills; the promotion of the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women; to maintain research in balance with teaching, since teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth; and to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship.

In other words, the aims of higher education were collective as well as individual. Economics – and especially the enrichment of the individual – take a back seat. Higher education should be made widely available because as a society we all benefit from it. And it follows that as a public good, it should be generously funded to ensure that the benefit is gained as widely as possible.

It is that principle that has been lost in the rush towards the marketisation of higher university. When I went to Oxford in 1980 I paid no fees and got a full maintenance grant. The move away from that provision has been justified in individual terms; the individual benefits and should pay. Graduates will earn more and will therefore be able to handle debt. And Universities are full, so why worry about whether people are being put off?

Allied with this is the quest for status and power. Degrees as the stepping-stone to higher salaries – elite universities not as places where study is undertaken but where useful contacts and the friendships that oil the wheels of political and financial institutions made, social refinements acquired and a certificate handed out at the end of it. The place where, as Ivan Illich put it, the head start is rationalised as achievement. If that’s what you think universities should be, then Willetts’ proposal is not without a certain logic. The logic only disintegrates when you start thinking that universities should be about learning and the collective good.

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