Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Three Cheers for Elitism


Universities are under tremendous pressure at the moment. Short of funds and with ever increasing demands for places, they have been forced to make hard choices, increasing tuition fees in some cases to the maximum allowed. This is absolutely necessary, especially as the top universities, always under some absurd social engineering imperative from government, no matter its political complexion, have to maintain standards.

The brutal truth is that we have too many students in too many institutions pursuing too many worthless degrees. The result has been the worst kind of academic inflation. We are sending people into higher education who should not be there, all in the name of equality. In present circumstances limited resources, too many bodies and too many third and fourth rate courses is a recipe for mediocrity and decline.

Above all the discrimination against the brightest and the best, those who are most able to make a meaningful contribution to university life, in favour of less well placed people, is disastrously ill-judged. Oh we mustn’t have elitism, the mantra goes. Yes, we must; the best must be allowed to be the best. I make no apology for embracing elitism. We are not all equal; we will never all be equal.

There is a terrible logjam in higher education, or better a Gordian Knot that needs to be cut. What better way of getting around spending restrictions and social engineering than founding a new university, one that will make no demands on the public purse, one based on private investment, one that can charge fees beyond present limits, one that can attract students, well-qualified in every respect, people who have been frustrated elsewhere but who can afford to pay for their education. Yes, an excellent idea, if only someone had sufficient vision and courage.

Someone does. Anthony Clifford Grayling, formerly professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, does. Last week he announced the creation of the New College of the Humanities in London, a venture which will be privately funded, where students will be charged double the existing fee levels allowed for by institutions beholden to government. It’s a bold, imaginative step, one which places particular stress on the humanities, under such pressure elsewhere. Boris Jonhson, the Mayor of London, has welcomed it, I welcome it and, as the Economist says, there is a market for the idea.

Some do not welcome it, including those who forced Grayling to abandon a public talk in Foyle’s bookshop in central London after smoke bombs were thrown. I can just imagine who it was, the same sub-literate oiks who despoiled the cenotaph last year in protests against the rise in tuition fees. Before this one shouted from the crowd “You have no right to speak”, then going on to demonstrate that he would have no opportunity to speak.

But the worst of all, the greatest oiks of all, are the academics who have condemned the New Humanities project as ‘elitist’, the horror, the horror. These include Professor Terry Eagleton, a Marxist literary theorist, who described it as a “disgustingly elitist outfit”, that Grayling had betrayed other academics by “jumping ship and creaming off the bright and the loaded.” This from a man who spends three weeks every year teaching at a private university in America which charges students £27,000 per annum, where he is paid a whacking great fee, as Grayling pointed out in the Times on Saturday. The stench of hypocrisy truly is overwhelming.

I hope the New College is a tremendous success. I hope it does attract all those people who can’t get places at Oxbridge because it upsets Nick Clegg too much, since they come from the ‘wrong’ background. We need an awful lot more elitism, the elitism upon which this country and its best educational institutions was built.

24 comments:

  1. Some of your left wing critics might be tempted to say, 'C'est l'orfèvre qui parle.'

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  2. Ana,

    I couldn't agree with you more. One of the most "Alice in Wonderland" elements of the past 15 years or so has been the assumption by politicians that simply increasing the proportion of school-leavers going on to university causes an improvement in British education. In reality, it actually leads to grade inflation at A-level, an increase in sub-standard degree courses and an overall dilution in quality. Not to mention the fact that jobs that 20 years ago required A-levels are now advertised as requiring a degree, thereby giving the lie to the alleged improved prospects that a degree brings.

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  3. Are they worth the investment? If you do the maths.

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  4. Anthony, give me a girl at a tender age. :-)

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  5. Falaise, absolutely right. I confess I feel sorry for those who done well in their A-levels, only to find that the results are always followed by reports about declining standards - with a regularity now of spring and cuckoos - , and that, no matter how well they seem to have done, their struggle is only beginning. I honestly think that people are being deceived, comforted by the illusion that entry into higher education, no matter how debased the entry, is a panacea for life. It’s not.

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  6. Richard, there is an element of risk here. There always is with speculative capital investment. It may, with proper investment, and the right kind dons and students, turn out to be as good as any Oxbridge college. Still, I confess my bias, both for the humanities and for free enterprise. :-)

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  7. (laughing out loud at the Miss Jean Brodie allusions. You're far too young to be in your prime, though...)

    Yes, I agree. I've some concerns about the specifics of the plans of Grayling et al (and am no great admirer, philosophically, of the founders of this college) - but in principle, it's a brilliant idea, and could really shake up our partially moribund and excessively bureaucratized higher education system for the better (or at least provide a precedent for so doing.)

    The lack of research work is the thing that really strikes me as odd though (yes, I have read Grayling's justification for this too)

    In any case the vile and envious abuse that the project is coming in for from the plodders, complacent and incompetent swings it for me. Good luck to this, may it succeed.

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  8. Society is a delicate balance between those that have, those that are getting by and the have nots. If there is little or no opportunity then there is disparity and discontent a situation ripe for rebellion. The importance of a strong economy and advancement opportunities have been exampled throughout history as those on top may find themselves working in a collective farm or worse.

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  9. Dominic, I think I may have misquoted there - it should be an impressionable age!


    The principle is indeed a brilliant idea which is precisely why it has attracted so much adverse reaction, a mixture of professional jealousy and inverted snobbery.

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  10. Anthony, that's a perfectly valid view and inequality should not spill over into lack of opportunity and social oppressiveness. I'm not sure if this is an issue in the States but the education system here is overburdened; that higher institutions of learning are not always the best choice; that people can come out the other end, qualified in something or another, but still no closer to finding an established position in life.

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  11. Is the current state of university education a good investment for the state? Most arguments I read online claim that state-supported university should be more 'vocational' with assisted places limited to those doing 'proper degrees - 'not 'meeja studies' or 'knitting.' The contradictions in this demand are lost on complainants who apparently are unaware of the commercial aspects of the communications and textile industries.

    “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ~W.B. Yeats.

    Looking back, I don't know whether or not I had a 'good' education. I certainly don't seem to think like other people . . . should I? And I have met an awful lot of damn fools with diplomas and doctorates. One hopes there is some benefit for all the wealth and time expended, but is completing a course of study the same as learning to think? Or is university, for many, a substitute for thinking for themselves?

    Hierarchical societies use many devices to categorize and rank members, and education has played a role in this. For many it is also a rite of passage in a culture that has abandoned most other rituals of coming of age.

    What is the current value of scholarship . . . the pursuit of knowledge purely for its own sake? What is the value of 'refinement' - the inculcation of 'social graces' and 'traditional values'? Opinions vary widely depending on the institution on a spectrum ranging from, say, London Metropolitan to Magdalene College.

    And whatever we think about education - is what we are offering what is best for the future of young people and for the society we hope to be part of in the future?

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  12. Calvin, you don't think like other people? In that case I would say you had an excellent education, in the best Socratic tradition. The fools are the sophists. :-)

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  13. The misguided notion that everyone should attend college is ridiculous. What's needed is more competent plumbers, carpenters & air conditioner repairmen and fewer sponge-brained dullards graduating from a 4-year indoctrination in liberalism.

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  14. Higher education is not for everyone here either, there are many trades that usually require far less formal education. There are trade/career schools and apprenticenship programs, and some people start buisnesses of their own etc. In the states to help people go to college/university there are financial aid programs, grants, student loans, scholarships and the like for those that meet the qualifications, but overall higher education is expensive. There are also education provisions to help those who have served in the military.

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  15. Also, many large companies over here like the metro that I worked for, offer in house and contracted training and college tuition and book expense reimbursement. This was provided on college courses and degree plans that were of benefit to the needs of the company. This provided a better educated workforce and advancement opportunity for those that took advantage of the programs.

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  16. I completely agree that our universities are packed full of mediocre students, examples of completely average people, with average IQs often with no particular talent worth cultivating. Clearly we all benefit from a wide range of academic subjects, but it’s very difficult to see justification for so many students studying so many courses with no obvious practical application. These courses always seem to be oversubscribed and overflowing with mediocrity.

    As I was teaching EFL some years ago, I thought I might benefit from studying linguistics and English ‘A’ level. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to find a college that teaches that very useful subject, whilst English Literature courses are ubiquitous. It seems very few want to study our language, when they can be credited for reading and demonstrating their comprehension of a few novels instead. Meanwhile we’re told that our industries and hospitals can’t function without the importation of “highly qualified” foreign professionals. Our universities are churning out thousands of, soon to be unemployed, Media Studies, Drama, Literature, etc., etc. students. If Cuba can train thousands of doctors every year, why do we need to import ours, particularly when we’re depriving many third-world nations of their precious medical staff?

    Whilst any society should encourage and support its elites, unfortunately the problem with the kind of ‘eliteism’ we usually see is that financial wealth and the power afforded by connections create a faux elite, not significantly more gifted nor talented than the population’s average. Precisely the kind of people, with the prerequisite resources, and having had the benefit of an expensive, and more importantly exclusive, education, are likely to head straight for this exclusive new college. Hard to see how society as a whole might benefit from this, with the possible exception of additional funds foreign students might bring to the UK. Unfortunately a huge proportion of foreign students, particularly those from many of those from some of the world’s more unpleasant places, are disinclined to return home when the time comes. So, even fewer jobs for those of our own graduates whose degrees might otherwise have rendered them employable.

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  17. @ Dominic: Tender would do.

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  18. On elitism, just remember that arrogance is not a virtue.

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  19. Anthony, I don’t know about the States but there has been far too much snobbery and condescension here over more traditional occupations, the kind of hands-on, blue collar work that is such an important part of any functioning economy. We need to learn to value everyone, academically competent or not. The great mistake is to shovel people into higher education in pursuit of bogus notions of equality.

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  20. Anthony, I know, it's a vice, one of many I have. :-)

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