Good universities are worth paying for
Any attempt to link a degree in history, classics or philosophy to the "utility" of our commercial future misses the point of university education.
  says Simon Heffer, 20 March, 2010
 Cambridge students waiting to receive their degrees Photo: Rex Features

Something of world historical significance happened this week. Chris Patten, euromaniac and destroyer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, said something with which I wholeheartedly agreed: that the cap must come off university tuition fees if our best establishments are to remain internationally competitive.

Universities are having to subsidise their students to the tune of thousands of pounds each per year, and the cash is starting to run out. The alternative to higher fees is many fewer places, and quite possibly fewer universities.
Lord Patten of Barnes spoke in a week when another half billion of funding cuts were announced by Lord Rumba of Rio. This whole situation is ghastly. Such cuts eat into our ability to educate young people for their and our future; and it remains abominable that these decisions should be taken by the Business Secretary.
A university education is not about utility: it is about teaching people the means of thinking. If they happen to read a course like law, medicine or engineering that leads directly to a vocation, then all well and good: but any attempt to link a degree in history, classics or philosophy to the "utility" of our commercial future misses the point.
The idiotic statement last week by Ed Balls, who runs our schools, that Latin would not inspire or motivate children and therefore (we deduce) should not be taught shows the philistine ignorance of our rulers.
Labour says it has massively increased funding for tertiary education and therefore the cuts should be borne easily. This is a specious argument. Cuts are across the board. They will stop the best universities – Oxbridge and the Russell Group – from offering quite such a good education to young people who are intellectually equipped to benefit from it.
Meanwhile, it continues to fund intellectually undemanding courses at third-rate institutions. I do not wish to deny anyone a university education, but a proper university education is one of intellectual rigour. If it is not, then plainly it is not really a university education, and should not be funded as such.
The result of this misuse of precious resources is that those who are able to get to one of our better universities will not have the resources at their disposal that used to be the case. If the cap comes off, or is raised, this will allow universities to cover more of their costs.
It will also, however, mean more students of ability avoiding, because of fear of debt, a university course that they could well complete. That is bad for them, for the institutions that lose them, and ultimately for our country.
Whoever wins the election, the governance of higher education cannot go on like this. It is an educational and not a commercial matter, for a start, and universities need to be placed under a reformed education department.
A rigorous audit of what universities offer, in accordance with a sound idea of what really constitutes a university, needs to be undertaken: and some establishments might better be re-designated polytechnics, with all that entails. Above all, we have to find alternative sources of funding for universities so that they can be needs blind: nothing could be worse than making them clubs for rich kids.
That means corporations who take a supply of graduates each year being given big tax incentives to donate to the institutions that educate them. It means those of us lucky enough to have had a university education on the cheap now, in later life, giving something back in hard cash. It requires government leadership.
This is not about competing with Harvard: it's about not becoming a Third World country, and about having a civilised future instead.
Well, I was almost surprised when I just met someone that has a degree in English Literature and a Masters in Poetry recently…. and not a bit jealous....
Sorry, I wasn't really sure if this should be in the politics folder. But then, where do the funds come from?
And yes, laborum dulce lenimen et memoria literarum humaniorum. Don't ask me too much about history.
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