I rarely get angry these days — it’s not advisable at my age. But I am practically apoplectic over the Coalition’s ill-judged attacks on our universities.
As a Cambridge man, I am happy when Oxford loses the Boat Race. But I shall not be happy if Oxford loses its reputation, and its eminence, and the respect which it enjoys around the world. Yet that is the likely outcome of the perverse policies being proposed by Clegg, and Cable, and Cameron (C for iConoclast?) — not forgetting David Willetts, who appears to have left both his brains behind on this issue.
Their approach has all the intellectual coherence and finesse of a petulant child attacking the mantel-clock with a hammer because he doesn’t want it to be bedtime.
Our leaders seem implicitly to have bought into the failed socialist concept that all students are essentially equal, so that if there are differences in achievement, these must be due to disadvantage, or discrimination, or differential wealth. It was this idea which over decades, and under both Labour and Conservative governments, did wholesale damage to secondary education in Britain, epitomised by the introduction of the comprehensive system.
Out here in Brussels, the response to the failure of European policies is to call for more Europe. More regulation. New EU agencies. More power for the centre. And in the UK, it seems that our response to the failure of government intervention in education is to call for more government intervention. With the demands for more action to widen access and to provide more places for less-qualified students, we are facing nothing less than the comprehensivisation of our universities.
It is simply wrong to suppose that all would-be students are equal. Their suitability for higher education is determined by their intelligence, their motivation, and the quality of the primary and secondary education they have already received. There is precious little that any government can do about the first two factors. And given that higher intelligence frequently leads to a good career and a higher income, plus the fact that intelligence is a largely heritable trait, we should expect that suitable applicants would tend to come preferentially from the middle classes — which is exactly what we find. That’s not discrimination — that’s just the way life is.
The area where governments and the educational establishment can and must make a major contribution is in primary and secondary education (and Michael Gove has made a great start). Yet this is exactly where a leftist academic educational establishment, coupled with the socialist notions of equality which I have mentioned already, have done such huge damage. I had the privilege of going to a grammar school, followed by Cambridge, 1955/65. But by removing most of the grammar schools, we have kicked away the ladder. While there certainly are a number of excellent comprehensive schools, there can be no doubt that the comprehensive system overall delivers poorer results than the much-maligned eleven-plus selective system which it replaced.
It is almost a cliché, but the solution for government is to raise standards in the schools, not to dumb-down the universities.
Cameron’s recent intervention when he accused Oxford of admitting only one black student in a year was ill-judged, ill-informed and crass. It demonstrates an appallingly casual attitude to a complex set of issues — and indeed a failure to understand those issues. The current threats to withdraw funding from Oxford unless it meets social-engineering criteria is just the sort of left-wing nonsense we thought that a Conservative-led Coalition would abandon. Conservatives and (classical) liberals should be joyously ripping apart these modish leftist ideas — not implementing them themselves.
These policy errors sit particularly badly with Cameron’s Big Society. If I understand this aright (and like many people I’ve been struggling with the concept for some time) it means less interference from government, and more responsibility and control handed down to Burke’s little platoons; to local institutions, like schools and hospitals and … well, universities. Instead we see diktats from Westminster accompanied by draconian threats to funding.
The débâcle over student fees again highlights the juvenile meddling that is taking the place of rational policies.
Government should simply withdraw from the question of school and university admissions, and leave it to the institutions themselves to set their own standards, their own criteria — and their own fees. It should give them the space to develop (or to build and maintain) their own ethos — and then to survive and prosper in the marketplace.
Of course government has a rôle, particularly in subsidising bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enable them to benefit from higher education. We used to have a system called State Scholarships (I received one of the last of them in 1962). And clearly the government must continue to subsidise the universities, but it should do so in a socially neutral way that promotes excellence, not social engineering.
We in Britain can be justifiably proud of our great universities, which can still hold their place against the best in the world. But if the man from Whitehall sets the admission policies, the inevitable result will be decline and mediocrity.