What Should Happen to Universities?

May 30, 2020, 11:40 AM UTC

It has become something of a cliché that nothing will be the same again after Covid. Perhaps less often considered is whether everything should be the same. Yet a lot of questions will need to be asked about what should stay, what should go, what should remain much the same, and what definitely could do with changing. That need will arise because of money. There’s not going to be as much of it around as we expected and certainly not as much public money as the government thought it would have in its coffers. So what should our priorities be?

Universities are a case in point. It emerged this week that Cambridge University is asking the government for financial help. Nothing very strange in that, you may say: everyone’s doing so at the moment because virtually everyone, apart from producers of hand sanitisers, has been economically clobbered by the pandemic. But that’s the point. Everyone’s asking for help but not everyone is going to be able to get it. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, may be putting up a good effort in trying to disprove Theresa May’s old claim that there’s no such thing as a ‘magic money tree’ but he’d certainly concede there’s no magic money forest.

So what about Cambridge University? Its vice-chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, has emailed his colleagues to say the pandemic risks costing the university hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenues (much of it from the higher fees paid by foreign students who won’t be coming) and warning of ‘unpalatable’ choices, such as pay freezes and redundancies. That’s why, he says, the university, mortarboard in hand, is ‘actively seeking’ financial help from the government.

To which some people will no doubt say: ‘Good try, Prof, but pull the other one!’ Cambridge is the richest higher education institution in the country. It has an endowment fund of £3.4bn and reserves of £5.2bn. Some of its colleges are huge landowners, the beneficiaries of foundations that go back hundreds of years. So the unsolicited advice likely to be proffered to the professor will be along the lines of: ‘Don’t come to us hard-pressed taxpayers for dosh. Sell some land. Some of your art could fetch a bit, too. And do you really need all that vintage claret in your cellars when you could be drinking cheap plonk from Aldi like the rest of us?’

No doubt the Vice Chancellor would patiently provide answers to all this, arguing, I expect, that all this ‘high life at high table’ stuff is an anachronistic caricature these days; that universities like Cambridge are a vital part of the British economy and that Cambridge’s own research work in fields like medicine, theoretical physics, genetic engineering and much more constitute the ‘goose’ that will lay Britain’s future golden eggs. Why else, he might add, have the outskirts of Cambridge been transformed in the last twenty years from sleepy countryside into Britain’s answer to Silicon Valley?

Well, that’s an argument he can have with Mr Sunak (an Oxford man). And I expect Cambridge will end up getting by, as it has done for eight hundred years. But it still leaves the bigger question: in the straitened times into which we are about to move, do we need to rethink our whole attitude to universities?

Universities have long been regarded, almost unquestioningly, as a ‘Good Thing’. They certainly were way back when Cambridge, Oxford and a few others were the only ones around and existed for public school boys (in those days it was only boys and only from public schools) to finish their education, have a good time, and make friends and ‘contacts’ who would help them in later life – in fact, this latter perk was perhaps the most important of all. It was a wonderfully stable system – stable in the sense that it perpetuated itself down the generations with the same families sending cohort after cohort of the same breed to the same colleges to keep going the same contacts. To a large extent, they still do.

Then, as society changed, as the economy grew more complex and the state grew bigger, there was an increasing demand for many more educated people to run it all and so the university sector grew accordingly. University education came to be seen too as a means of increasing social mobility: admission would no longer be open only to the dim sons of the landed but now also to the bright daughters of everyone else. Universities would be the agent for meritocracy to replace aristocracy. It was on universities – no longer just the stone-built quadrangles of Oxbridge, nor even the redbricks of the Victorian era, but the concrete new universities of the 1960s – that the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, would build a new, more dynamic, more egalitarian Britain ‘forged in the white heat of technology’.

It was his successor, Tony Blair, who raised belief in universities as a Good Thing to its current status as the key to our salvation. You’ll remember that ‘education, education, education’ was his creed (long before Dominic Cummings reduced political discourse to the parroting of three-word slogans) and university education was his holy of holies. Mr Blair’s ambition was for fifty per cent of all young people to go to university and so the sector must expand to accommodate them. In order that the taxpayer should not be lumbered with the total cost he introduced tuition fees and student loans to pay for a large part of it, arguing that if these new students were ultimately going to benefit from the higher-paying jobs their degrees would secure for them, it was only fair they should pay their whack.

That fifty percent target has recently been reached. So is it the great success he promised and which we must do everything to protect in the post-Covid battle over scarce government resources?

Well, some would say ‘far from it’. And among them would be Mr Blair’s own son, Euan, who remarked recently of his father’s university target: ‘It was put in with the best of intentions. The idea was that a degree gives you more access to opportunities. Unfortunately it didn’t work like that.’ He added that ‘while the world has changed, the system of educating people and preparing them for work hasn’t.’ So he founded an organisation, White Hat, that bypasses universities altogether by matching bright school-leavers with white-collar apprenticeships. Alternatives to university are now the thing.

Some would say his verdict on the fifty percent university target is a diplomatic understatement. They’d claim instead that it has been a complete disaster both for many of the new graduates the expanded system has churned out, and also in relation to universities themselves.

Their case would go like this. Far from helping them get on in life, a substantial minority of recent graduates has, as Mr Blair Junior points out, failed to find the opportunities that were promised and have ended up doing a job for which a degree is not required and which pay less than they imagined they’d be earning. Meanwhile they’re still loaded with the debt from their student loans. Many of them will never reach the earning threshold at which they are expected to start repaying the loan so the government will end up footing the bill anyway: it’s estimated around half of such loans will never be repaid.

In short, this new cohort of students was sold a pup: they wasted three years racking up debt, studying subjects that were often of little interest to them and of no use to anyone else, all in the hope of the brighter future they might well have better secured by shutting out the siren calls of the universities and pursuing the cheaper and faster route the younger Blair now advocates.

Meanwhile the universities themselves have been transformed from ‘seats of learning’ into multi-billion-pound businesses in which the main aim is to get bums on seats and therefore tuition fees in coffers and in which the new chief executives (I’m sorry: vice-chancellors) pay themselves salaries of anything up to half a million quid a year. So far as the original purpose of universities goes, a purpose that rests fundamentally on the relationship and contact between teachers and students, forget it – as many students and beleaguered academics will tell you. Students routinely complain of ‘hardly ever seeing’ their tutors, and academics despair that under pressure from the now all-powerful university administrators they find themselves spending less and less of their time teaching and more and more time churning out grant-generating ‘research’ they themselves regard as valueless, or trying to satisfy the insatiable appetite of target-driven bureaucrats for ‘evidence’ that their universities are a wonderful success. Cambridge, you may have noticed, has announced recently that the whole of the next academic year will be conducted online. So much for Socratic exchange between teacher and pupil.

Some will argue that such an account of the state of our universities is a travesty of the truth. But it is near enough the truth to resonate with many who live and work within their walls. And there can be no doubt that the focus on university as the unquestioned route young people should follow to make the most of themselves has involved huge cost, not least in the starving of the wider further education sector that is supposed to cater for those unsuited for an academic vocation. We should have been spending money (rather than cutting it), critics say, on practical courses in FE colleges or on providing a really properly-functioning apprenticeship system instead of conning young people into thinking their future depended on gaining a degree in media studies from a university no one’s heard of.

So do we need to rethink the role and purpose of universities, of who should go there, of how many graduates we need and of what is best for young people? Or should we just carry on as before and, among other things, hand Cambridge over the dosh?

Let us know what you think.