Graeme Archer is a medical statistician, a former winner of the Orwell Prize for blogging, and was recently a speechwriter for a Cabinet Minister.
What is a university? asked the Government. Universities, responded Lord Robbins in his 1963 report, are defined by four principles.
They should: “provide 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,[…]; and to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship.”
His report led to the expansions of the 1960s and 1970s. And governments from Major to Blair to May have argued both that the principles are still sound and that our current universities adhere to them, driving an expansion in graduate numbers that would have popped Lord R’s eyes.
Thus: “We should celebrate the fact that more young people are going into higher education than ever before, including from disadvantaged backgrounds” wrote Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, clumsily and recently.
I don’t want to come over all Kingsley Amis, but should we? Celebrate, that is. Even if the outcome is a cohort of young people with huge debts and no obvious route to prosperity? According to the Times, “half of recent graduates have taken entry-level jobs below degree level”.
Here is the theory. Based on the earning power of the ten per cent of my generation which attended university, governments made the (not unwarranted) assumption that the same positive trajectory in life could be delivered to 50 per cent of young people, by sending them to “yooni” (dread phrase.)
Belief in the theory was so strong that modern undergraduates pay for it with debt upwards of £30,000. University made me rich, so they can afford it; the thoughtless reading of my generation.
But what if the extrapolation doesn’t hold? What if the increase in numbers hasn’t magicked five times as many Russell Group institutions into existence?
“No-one pretends that a degree from [insert name of former polytechnic] is the same as one from [insert name of the Russell Group institution attended by the speaker],” is the usual response. But we do, we pretend exactly that. If we didn’t, then the differential values-added across the distribution of universities would be reflected in the fees their students are willing to pay. Yet the fees, for more than three-quarters of courses, are the same.
So we know that modern students are debt-ridden in a fashion that would have stopped me in my 1980s, working-class tracks. We know that half graduate to jobs of below degree level. Also unwelcome is the grade inflation and pseudo-academicisation that expansionism has delivered.
By the latter, I mean the entry-level barrier of a degree for many jobs that once required only intelligence, and aptitude. Nursing and teaching, for example, were (in my lifetime!) vocations, which folded their necessary academic components into practical career-based learning. No longer.
Degree-class inflation is beyond a joke. More than 70 per cent of students are now awarded an Upper Second or a First. I’m old enough no longer to care (not a sentence I ever thought to write) about the impact this has on my First, but I doubt I’d feel ambivalent were I about to pay thirty grand for the “privilege”. I’d go ballistic.
It’s like the old canard about Conservatives: we knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. Universities know the cost of a degree (“Thirty grand! sign here…”) but have deflated its value close to zero (“Upper Second. Next!”)
I know: old-guy grumbling. Maybe, were it not for the other problem with expanded universities: their culture. You’ll have seen the sneers about how Brexit was delivered by less-educated voters; young people with university qualifications were the most EU-enthusiastic cohort.
The implication is clear: stupid people voted Leave. Stupid is someone without a degree. Are we so sure? And not just because of grade inflation.
The uncomfortable question is this: has the push for expansion altered the nature of university? If not, why do universities tolerate the jaw-dropping illiberality which deforms academic life?
When boys are forced into seminars which slyly insinuate their proto-rapist status; when Islamists are free to preach their hatred at helpfully gender-segregated events; when good liberals like Germaine Greer are banned for ridiculous charges of hate-crime; when professors of history at Warwick label the Prime Minister a Nazi; when Sussex University holds seminars on “dealing with Right-wing attitudes” (as though such attitudes are a pathology); when applause, for God’s sake, is forbidden, on the basis of its innate “hostility”: something has gone wrong.
Grade inflation, huge debt, uncertain post-graduate careers; that’s one thing. Add to that a culture of illiberal, intolerant hatred – quite literally the opposite of what Glasgow University gifted me in 1986 (talk about a safe space! It saved my life) – and not only grumpy old men should worry about the future leaders our universities are producing, or the quality of their degrees.
Universities should produce cultivated men and women, wrote Robbins; they should transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship. Were Robbins to be writing his report today, based on the evidence of the last twenty years, do you think he would still recommend the mass expansion of our universities? Quite.